Issa Rae’s highly anticipated follow-up to the critically acclaimed Insecure is a story about a fledgling girl rap group in Miami formed by two estranged friends from high school, Mia (KaMillion) and Shawna (Aida Osman). In Rap Sh!t, Shawna is actually trying to make a go at a career as a rapper, but she’s resistant to falling into the same traps as her peers (namely rapping about sex, men, drugs, and money). But things aren’t taking off with her socially conscious raps, and she “sells out” by turning to her friend Mia, a stripper who amassed a huge social following from her sexual OnlyFans account. A girl group is born, much to the disappointment of Shawna’s law school boyfriend Cliff, who definitely has dreams of becoming Barack Obama (in a great bit of casting, actor Devon Terrell who plays Cliff previously played Obama in the film Barry).
The eight-episode HBO Max series is a natural successor for Rae’s artistry: she created the show though she does not appear in it, but featured rapping as a cornerstone trait of her character on HBO’s Insecure. The series hits a lot of the same themes as Rae’s first show (female friendship, career fulfillment, existentialism) but relocates them into the different, vibrant locale of Miami, which is as important to the story as Los Angeles was for Insecure.
Osman is great as Shawna, especially as the series subtly tracks the changes in her behavior as their rap group starts to take off. But the real breakout is KaMillion—a bonafide rapper in real life—as Mia, convincingly stepping into an acting role that requires depth and range. Through Mia, we see the trappings of a stereotypical hood life, and the show humanizes the struggle of both single moms and those who feel like their body is the only answer to their problems. But Rae and the writing team don’t allow her to be one-note; many times throughout the six episodes available to critics, Mia is internal and introspective, and laments that her life’s dreams seem unreachable. It also helps that Mia is just downright funny, aided by KaMillion’s excellent line delivery (one perfect line comes after Shawna tells her to drive safely, and Mia interprets that as a slight at her driving abilities).
As Rae showcased time and again on Insecure, she knows how to construct a love triangle with actual stakes and intrigue, and Rap Sh!t has this in spades. Like Issa and Lawrence, Shawna enters the scene with her long-term boyfriend Cliff—though he’s not in a slump the way Lawrence was. But the clash between them echoes some of the same points, like having support from your partner and sharing a vision for the future, and the build-up to the breaking point is perfectly plotted. Of course, the series is also not without the signature HBO sex scenes, but they aren’t overly gratuitous and are driven by the plot.
Visually, the series leans heavily on online trends like Instagram Stories and Lives, transforming the TV screen into social media apps and making the audience voyeurs in the lives of the main characters. It’s an effective device that isn’t overdone in the world of the show, where online followings are what drive success.
The other hood characters surrounding Mia and Shawna—namely their wannabe manager Chastity (Jonica Booth)—get a little bit lost in their own side stories and feel actively less relevant to the overall plot when they’re not in service of the rap duo. But that’s a small growing pain of a new series that’s trying new things and pushing the boundaries of stories as “prestige TV.” Rap Sh!t is unapologetic in what it is and who it’s for, and TV is better for it.
Rap Sh!t premieres as a special event with two episodes Thursday, July 21 at 6 p.m. PT on HBO Max. Episodes will continue weekly through September 1st.
Radhika Menon is a pop culture-obsessed writer and filmmaker living in New York City. Her work has appeared in NY Post’s Decider, Teen Vogue, Vulture and more, and is featured in Brown Girl Magazine‘s first ever print anthology. She is a proud alumna of the University of Michigan and thinks she’s funny on Twitter.
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