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Issa Rae stepped into the limelight with her 2016 Emmy-winning breakthrough show Insecure. The monumental comedy – about two Black female friends living in Los Angeles, whose flaws are exacerbated by the city’s obsession with status and exclusivity – made Rae a star. Now she’s following it with Rap Sh!t, which takes an honest look at the thorniness of the music industry.
Tonally, the shows are very different. Gone are Rae’s wholesome Insecure monologues, usually delivered in front of a mirror. In their place are impassioned Instagram video rants: “Y’all say, ‘Ooh I want a different type of female rapper.’ No, you f***ing don’t!” These largely come from awkward Shawna (played by newcomer Aida Osman), star of Rae’s newest comedy, for which the creator stays firmly behind the camera as executive producer.
We’re now in an age where gamers can make legit salaries on Twitch, filmmakers can be discovered on YouTube, and music artists can be born from TikTok. At least it seems that easy. But, when you deliberately don’t want to conform to the norm, how do you make your mark? This is Shawna’s burning question as an aspiring rapper who wants to “make stuff relevant, but also artful”. In other words, she’d rather spit bars about socialism and student loans rather than shake her ass and succumb to the male gaze.
Conceived during the final season of Insecure, Rap Sh!t takes us to the sticky humidity of Miami, where Shawna is working a menial job as a hotel front desk agent. Just as she’s abandoned all hopes of a music career, 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 unite to form a rap group, reigniting Shawna’s passion and perseverance.
While Rae doesn’t appear on screen, you can still feel her imprint in the characterisation. The soul and heart behind Shawna and Mia distinctly mimic Insecure’s central friendship, with the show led by two Black women whose insecurities are overcome with the help of each other’s support.
Easily distinguishable as a love letter to the female rappers – Nicki Minaj, Noname, and City Girls (with the latter named as executive producers on the show) – who have successfully fought their way to the top in a male-dominated industry, the series can feel niche if you’re not overly familiar with the rap scene. Since the first few episodes are heavily focused on hip-hop’s social media age, I was worried it had pigeon-holed itself.
More than half of the scenes are edited to place us on the viewer side of an iPhone. This artistic decision – which can seem overdone – often makes you feel removed. Watching a screen through a screen isn’t particularly engaging. It isn’t until the season progresses and Shawna and Mia grow closer, sharing deep thoughts and shedding their online facades, that the series follows suit. Its use of Instagram filters quickly minimises, and the scope of the show broadens, making it less about rap and more about identity.
They’re both uncertain women, struggling to balance how they want the world to perceive them and how comfortable they are with embodying that image. Shawna, a college dropout whose dreams are overshadowed by her law school boyfriend, is embarrassed that her life and career are stunted. Meanwhile, Mia is stuck picking up the slack of her baby daddy, worried she’s not providing her young daughter with a better life. Although they’re in different places, their goal of success remains the same.
Set post-Covid, Rap Sh!t maintains important political and social relevance, touching on numerous themes, including educational and economic diversity in the Black community and Black female empowerment. This is a show with a lot to say. And with the gifted Rae as head writer, we can rest assured Rap Sh!t will make sure it hits each and every beat.
Rap Sh!t premieres its first two episodes on HBO Max on 21 July, followed by one episode a week until 1 September. A UK release date has yet to be announced.