Issa Rae burst into the spotlight with her 2016 Emmy-winning Breakthrough Show Unsure. The epic comedy – about two black girlfriends living in Los Angeles whose blemishes are compounded by the city’s obsession with status and exclusivity – made Rae a star. Now she follows him Rap Sh!t, which takes an honest look at the thorns of the music industry.
Tonally the shows are very different. Gone are Rae’s sane Unsure Monologues usually held in front of a mirror. In their place are passionate Instagram video rants: “You all say, ‘Ooh, I want a different kind of rapper.’ No, don’t bloody hell!” These stem mostly from the bumbling Shawna (played by newcomer Aida Osman), the star of Rae’s latest comedy, for which the creator stays tight behind the camera as executive producer.
We are now in a time where gamers can earn legitimate salaries on Twitch, filmmakers can be discovered on YouTube, and music artists can be born from TikTok. At least it seems that easy. But if you deliberately don’t want to conform to the norm, how do you assert yourself? That’s Shawna’s burning question as an aspiring rapper who wants to “make things relevant but also artistic.” In other words, she’d rather spit pubs about socialism and student loans than shake her butt and bow to male gazes.
Conceived during the last season of Unsure, Rap Sh!t takes us to the stifling humidity of Miami, where Shawna has a menial job as a hotel receptionist. Just as she’s given up all hopes of a music career and announcing her “retirement” to her negligible Instagram following, she reconnects with an old high school friend Mia (played by real-life rapper KaMillion). The duo reunite as a rap group that reignites Shawna’s passion and stamina.
Even though Rae isn’t on screen, you can still feel her imprint in the characterization. The soul and heart behind Shawna and Mia clearly mimic Unsure‘s central friendship, with the show helmed by two black women whose insecurities are overcome with the help of each other’s support.
Easily recognizable as a love letter to the female rappers — Nicki Minaj, Noname, and City Girls (with the latter credited as executive producers on the show) — who have successfully fought their way to the top in a male-dominated industry, the series can prove to be niche feel if you’re not too familiar with the rap scene. With the early episodes focusing heavily on hip-hop’s social media age, I was concerned it might have pigeonholed itself.
More than half of the scenes are edited to put us on the viewer side of an iPhone. This artistic choice—which can seem overdone—often makes one feel distant. Viewing a screen through a screen isn’t particularly appealing. Only as the season progresses and Shawna and Mia grow closer, sharing deep thoughts and shedding their online facades, does the series follow suit. The use of Instagram filters is quickly minimized, and the scope of the show expands, making it less about rap and more about identity.
They are both insecure women struggling with how they want the world to perceive them and how comfortable they are in embodying that image. Shawna, a college dropout whose dreams are overshadowed by her law student, is embarrassed that her life and career have withered away. Meanwhile, Mia is stuck making up for her baby daddy’s gap, worried she’s not offering her baby daughter a better life. Although they are in different locations, their goal for success remains the same.
set post covid, Rap Sh!t maintains important political and social relevance and touches on numerous issues, including educational and economic diversity in the black community and the empowerment of black women. This is a show with a lot to say. And with the gifted Rae as head writer, we have peace of mind Rap Sh!t will make sure it hits every shot.
The first two episodes of Rap Sh!t will air July 21 on HBO Max, followed by one episode per week through September 1. A UK release date has yet to be announced.