In 'Rap Sh!t,' women in rap strive and thrive
In the premiere episode of the HBO Max comedy Rap Sh!t, executive producer Issa Rae's first major project post-Insecure, Shawna (Aida Osman), a socially conscious rapper, fervently announces her retirement from the rap game.
Never mind that she's a relatively unknown 20-something artist who's barely stepped foot in the game to begin with – after dropping out of college to work with a producer, she's found only fleeting, minor viral success, and that was ... two years ago. She's done. Out. Over an industry that only values female rappers who show off all their assets while putting in the "bare minimum with no originality."
To pay the bills, Shawna has been working the reception desk in a Miami hotel lobby by day while writing rhymes at night (think lyrics about "goddesses," "nurturers," and the "garden of Eden") under the stage name The Vision. In her accompanying videos, she dons a decorated face mask, a giant 'fro, and a hoodie, "because I want people to focus on my lyricism, not what I look like."
An admirable, if potentially non-lucrative, aim to have.
"Y'all say, 'I want a different type of female rapper.' ... NO YOU DON'T!" she bemoans to her handful of Instagram Live followers. "Cause you don't support me! You don't support any of us!"
She gives it another try
It's not spoiling things to say that Shawna comes out of retirement faster than Jay-Z did in the mid-'00s. After reconnecting with Mia (KaMillion), an estranged friend from high school who's now a single mother juggling multiple side hustles – makeup artistry, an OnlyFans page, and wealthy sugar daddies – Shawna rediscovers her love for rap and the two of them decide to form a rap duo. But that tension between artistry and commercialism, politics and entertainment, is a central recurring theme in this zeitgeist-y take on the current landscape of hip-hop and the music industry at large.
The show is at its freshest and funniest when this eternal struggle to strike a balance is front and center. As the one who embodies the flamboyant attitude and capitalistic ethos of many of the biggest current rappers (Meghan thee Stallion, Cardi B, and real-life analog and Rap Sh!t co-producers City Girls), Mia acts as a stand-in for the masses, pushing Shawna to loosen up a bit and think more commercially. The first time they sit down to write together, Shawna presents an expletive-laced, unintentionally silly verse where she's rapping from the perspective of student loans.
Mia, bewilderedly: "Why would I want a song to be about that?"
Shawna, sheepishly: "Everybody's affected by predatory lending."
Osman and KaMillion have strong banter and chemistry in these scenes, and their characters' dueling personalities and bonding anchor the episodes as they attempt to create and build a following on social media and within the local Miami scene. There have been plenty of shows and movies that have tapped into the absurdities and contradictions of being an aspiring rapper (Atlanta, Dave, or to go back much further, CB4), but it's refreshing to see it told from a woman's perspective, where the pathways to success are unarguably different in many ways. In this fruitful era where more female rappers than ever before are sharing space, collaborating, and finding success in the mainstream, Rap Sh!t attempts to both celebrate this progress and call into question the structural limitations that remain for women in rap through Shawna.
The result can be a bit messy – does Shawna's embrace of more ratchet lyricism represent survival mode or selling out? It's not entirely clear, and only six of eight episodes were made available to critics ahead of the premiere – though perhaps that's a reflection more of the messiness of double standards than anything else. Her desire to Billie Eilish her sartorial aesthetic is treated like a punch line, and her grievances about the industry's lopsided standards and formulas for superstardom – get a man who wants to sleep with them to co-sign their aspirations, get cosmetic surgery and then flaunt it – are almost always shut down by someone else arguing "the game is the game" or that women in hip-hop are actually thriving on their own terms.
At the same time, her long-distance boyfriend Cliff (Devon Terrell), an uptight N.Y.U. law student who aims to be the next Barack Obama or Benjamin Crump, is dismissive of her aspirations and worried what they might mean for his political career. (His sexist roommates negatively refer to Mia as a "porn star" and snarkily comment that "We in a new era of women now. [Shawna] don't have to have to be Michelle, she can be Melania.") As plenty of women in hip-hop understand, no matter what you do, or don't do, misogyny will rear its ugly head from some corner or another.
A promising series
When Rap Sh!t falls back on more familiar elements, like the predictable way the relationship plays out with Cliff or a girls' night out that's nearly derailed by the imbibing of molly, it can drag a bit. And depending on how old you are, you may find the show's technique of presenting most scenes as though they were being shot on a phone for social media or via Facetime conversation to be exhausting or an accurate, immersive depiction of how so many people move and connect throughout the world. (Admittedly, I'm an aging 30-something millennial and found it unnecessary at times.)
But there's likely enough here for hip-hop fans and Insecure fans to chew on and be satisfied, while anticipating where Shawna and Mia will go next. As the latter astutely points out, we're in the middle of a "bad b---h renaissance," and these two characters are capturing (and capitalizing on) the moment.