“Crooks and criminals.” That’s how Issa Rae described the music industry in an interview with the Los Angeles Times last winter, ahead of the finale of her landmark HBO series Insecure. “It’s probably the worst industry that I have ever come across,” Rae said of her experience. (She founded a record label in 2019.)
There are, in my view, no good industries, but navigating the music business can be especially punishing. Early support and mentorship are hard to find; label contracts can be seedy and vampiric. Success comes with its own set of troubles, too. It’s this process that Rae confidently portrays in Rap Sh!t, her anthemic new HBO Max comedy series about two friends who decide to form a rap group after their drunken freestyle goes viral.
The Bottom Line
Fire up the group chats.
It’s a glossy, entertaining show that prioritizes quick wit and fun; it’s less moody than Donald Glover’s Atlanta and not as satirical as Dave, two other series that chronicle rappers trying to break through. The jokes here pack a punch even when they tiptoe into corny territory, the visuals are smooth and the chemistry between the performers feels warm and familiar. Like Insecure, Rap Sh!t doubles as an incubator for Rae’s thematic interests (friendships between women, career existentialism, the quest for self-worth) and a platform for emerging or under-recognized artists. Rae’s record label handles music supervision for the series, and Insecure alums make cameos throughout. In other words, it’s a family affair.
Set in Miami, Rap Sh!t opens with images of the city captured via tourists’ social media posts. The show uses Facetimes, Instagram Lives, Stories and comments and other video platforms to frame and propel its narrative. Emphasizing the hyper-visibility of our times, the approach initially feels gimmicky but ultimately proves inventive, especially paying off in the latter half of the six half-hour episodes (out of eight total) sent to critics for review.
At the start of the first episode, we meet Shawna (Aida Osman), an aspiring rapper and concierge at the Plymouth Hotel, a luxury haunt in South Beach. She stands behind the welcome desk, surprised at being identified by a Black guest who listens to her conscious rap videos on Instagram. A conversation meant to be encouraging ends in a deflating way, mirroring Shawna’s general feeling about the state of her life.
Since dropping out of college to pursue an ultimately fruitless contract with her ex-friend and producer (Jaboukie Young-White), Shawna has felt stuck. Her raps aren’t getting noticed online. Her best friend, Jill (Amandla Jahava), an employee at Spotify whom she’s asked for help in connecting with executives, is ghosting her. She’s struggling to weather the ups and downs of her long-distance relationship with her boyfriend, Cliff (Devon Terrell), a law student at NYU. And she’s selling stolen credit card numbers to make ends meet.
When Shawna gets a call from Mia (KaMillion), an old friend with whom she’s fallen out of touch, she’s surprised. Mia, a makeup artist, stripper and office manager with 25,000 Instagram followers, is one of those people whose life seems more together than Shawna’s. She frequently hops on Instagram to wax poetic about the uselessness of broke men and the importance of self-affirmation. “Did you mean to call me?” a puzzled Shawna asks after picking up the FaceTime. Yes, Mia did. She’s heading to the Plymouth Hotel to do a client’s makeup and wants to know if Shawna can watch her daughter for a little. Lamont (RJ Cyler), the father of Mia’s child, has bailed.
Shawna agrees, a decision that resets the two friends’ estranged relationship. They go out for drinks that evening, leading to a night of bar hopping and strip clubs. Later, sitting in Mia’s car, they have a heart to heart on Instagram Live about the end of their friendship. Given that we don’t know the two women all that well yet, the conversation feels more like a plot device to get us from the awkward stage of reuniting to their drunken freestyle over Khia’s “K-Wang” beat a scene later.
Their song — “Seduce and Scheme” — goes viral overnight, prompting Shawna to seriously consider Mia’s proposal to start a rap group, which goes unnamed. Rae recently told The Hollywood Reporter that Rap Sh!t is a composite portrait of women rappers. But if Shawna and Mia’s story seems familiar, perhaps it’s because it contains strokes of Miami duo City Girls’ own story. (In fact, Yung Miami and JT are co-executive producers on Rap Sh!t.) Source material aside, Rae’s show isn’t exclusively interested in depicting the ascent of an individual group; Rap Sh!t is fascinated by the music industry ecosystem and how everyone, from artists to producers to sound engineers to club promoters, get played in the process. The adventures and misadventures are buoyed by Devonté Hynes’ soft score.
Shawna and Mia get off to a rocky start. The harsh morning light highlights their differences. Shawna can be controlling and a bad listener, leading her to initially underestimate Mia. When faced with situations that don’t interest her, Mia withdraws. Osman and KaMillion play the pair as passionate and prone to fractiousness. They argue over the group’s direction, a brief fight that channels the show’s central thesis: Shawna wants to make intellectual music, art that “isn’t for the male gaze”; it’s a position she thinks is not conducive to dressing provocatively. Mia vehemently disagrees, arguing that music is “in the middle of a bad bitch renaissance.” The conversation crescendoes but ends unsatisfyingly; there’s room for the show to clarify and further explore Mia and Shawna’s respective positions and the ways each pursues her goal.
None of that matters, though, when the pair hit Shawna’s makeshift bedroom closet booth. The friendship’s tone in these scenes takes on a different register. Bodies roll and booties shake, tongues stick out and fingers are pointed as they refine their songs. They are badass and playful, like the women in the promising and cancelled-too-soon ABC show Queens.
Even with just one song, the formation of their group changes Shawna and Mia, as does the rekindling of their friendship. Empowered by this new venture, the women go through the motions of their personal lives — childcare issues, misunderstandings with their partners, boring day jobs — with renewed assurance. A bad bitch renaissance, indeed.