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#What Rap Sh!t said — and left unsaid — about the hip-hop industry

Issa Rae’s recently canceled dramedy skewered the music business with wry and imperfect insight.

What <i>Rap Sh!t</i> said — and left unsaid — about the hip-hop industry

Aida Osmon and KaMillion from HBO Max’s Rap Sh!t. Image courtesy HBO


The joy of Issa Rae’s now-canceled music industry satire Rap Sh!t is in its disempowerment. That isn’t to say Shawna and Mia, the hip-hop duo at the heart of the show, don’t find success — where things leave off at the end of season 2, their rise to national notoriety seems inevitable, if burgeoning. But every victory is hard-won, marred by mistakes or moral compromise. If rap music sells us the notion of the rapper as superhuman and superlucky, Rap Sh!t recognizes the rapper as exploited and exploitative. A dream job is still a job.

The compromises start early. Shawna (Aida Osman) is a “woke” rapper, spitting conscious bars on Instagram wearing an afro wig and face mask. Despite some viral buzz, this hasn’t manifested in much, and the lack of tangible success or external validation weighs on her. A freestyle session with old classmate Mia (KaMillion) brings out a less uptight side, playing to glitzy cliches about using men for money. The freestyle starts trending, garnering attention from the same Spotify execs who previously ignored Shawna’s calls. Despite some hand-wringing over playing into patriarchy, Shawna quickly heeds Mia’s advice to stop rapping about student loans and make music that’s fun for the girls, and by the end of the first season, the pair have agreed to go on tour with a white rapper who makes Iggy Azalea look like Mac Miller.

To the show’s credit, Rap Sh!t is ruthlessly unglamorous about the hip-hop industry, its platitudes, and promises. Shawna’s old producer Francois Boom (Jaboukie Young-White, menacingly hilarious) screwed her over before the events of the pilot; still, when her success prompts a “hey stranger” DM, she agrees to meet with him, and eventually, go back into business together. Lovably sensitive rappers have freakishly toxic men in their entourage; mixing pleasure and business invariably leads to pain. The show frequently invokes the performativity of digital marketing, as when Shawna and Mia post an excited Instagram story about their first tour before collapsing into stony silence as soon as the camera is off. The smartphone-centric aesthetic of the show, adapting Instagram Live, TikTok and iPhone recordings to widescreen proportions, only heightens the artifice of it all.

Rap Sh!t is well-attuned to the textures of social media and the power of major streaming services, but its understanding of smaller platforms and artist marketing feels underdeveloped. Shawna kicks off the series as a conscious lyricist who wears a face mask and baggy hoodies to avoid being judged for her looks, but her primary avenues of self-promo are Instagram and TikTok; in real life, you’d imagine a rapper like that would be more focused on building out a discography on SoundCloud or Bandcamp, where the music speaks louder than the imagery. And although Rap Sh!t clearly draws on Lil Peep and Juice WRLD’s subgenre of narcotized depression as inspiration for key characters in the second season, it generally treats this music as obviously mainstream, which feels only partly true — just because an artist succeeds, doesn’t mean their music is inherently more accessible or basic, no matter how monetized it may be.

The sensation that the producers are just a touch out of step with the actual industry manifests in other ways, too. HBO money allows for a plethora of big-budget needledrops, and while some (Trick Daddy, Sexyy Red) feel inspired, others feel brutally obvious, like a sex scene soundtracked by Pi’erre Bourne’s “Drunk & Nasty.” Elsewhere, Drake’s “No Friends in the Industry” soundtracks a flash of minor corporate backstabbing, though it’s hard to say the moment of “oh shit” recognition is worth the three months it took to get the track cleared. It feels distracting rather than elevating. And although the soundtrack features plenty of female rappers, the vast majority of the nearly 200 songs featured on the show and its accompanying soundtrack mixtapes are the exact kind of mainstream hip-hop Rae seeks to skewer.

The show’s incorporation of less radio-friendly sounds into its narrative can feel superficial, too: Shawna has Tierra Whack posters in her bedroom and professes admiration for Tia Corine, but these touchstones are meaningless when it comes to the music she makes, both on her own and with Mia. References like these feel shoehorned into the script to let us know the production team is hip, rather than a genuine reflection of the character’s taste or inspiration; you wish they’d let her shoutout Noname or Dreezy, the latter of whom actually helped ghostwrite Mia and Shawna’s on-screen songs.

If the music supervision seems confused about the statement it wants to make, so does Issa Rae: Rap Sh!t’s overreliance on romantic drama blurs the line between sexual empowerment and sexist tropes about female artists. The duo’s first single is produced by Mia’s baby daddy Lamont (RJ Cyler) in a moment of genuine camaraderie between co-parents, but the pair quickly fall back into bed together. A majorly successful rapper impresses Mia by handing her a stack of bills at the end of season 1, then flies her out in season 2; both Mia and Shawna fall into romantic relationships with fellow artists on tour. These are not unrealistic scenarios on their own but taken together seem to suggest the pair are more focused on sex than success. Exceptions to the pattern only reinforce the rule — guest star Pardison Fontaine doesn’t have the screen time for a sex scene; frenemy Francois is implicitly gay; second-season antagonist Gat (Patrick Cage II) gets his kicks demeaning black women. If a man is good, he’s good enough to fuck, flattening the ups and downs of romantic arcs into predictably instantaneous chemistry. The net effect depersonalizes the characters, distancing the viewer and lowering the stakes.

The contradiction between Shawna’s past as a conscious lyricist and her potential future as a Miami bass rapper underpins key moments in her personal and professional lives, but Rap Sh!t fast-forwards past any murkier feelings. Refusing to linger on self-doubt reflects a postmodern realism — who has time to think about capitalism and patriarchy when The Man keeps sending you bills to pay? — at the cost of inadvertently deflating narrative catharsis. Rather than explore what “selling out” might mean to an early career musician and college dropout, Rae defers to the common assumption that the only people who sell out are those who don’t have much conviction in the first place. Unresolved emotional tension is one thing, but denying the legitimacy of Shawna’s pivot comes across as oddly dogmatic. As perversely satisfying as Rap Sh!t‘s qualified victories can be, you’re left wishing the show would dig deeper into its glossy emotional truths.

It’s particularly frustrating given how keen some of Rae’s observations can be. In season 2 Shawna blows up at white rapper Reina Reign: “You lean on lameass stereotypes so you can simulate Blackness and sell it back to white people.” “You do the exact same shit,” Reign scowls back. But Rae stops short of interrogating commercial hip-hop, even as Rap Sh!t cynically forecloses any other avenues to success or a career in music for its characters. Shawna can be as mad as she wants: she’s still on tour dancing next to Reina every night.

I don’t mean to suggest Rae is anti-hip-hop — she tapped the City Girls as executive producers, so she can’t be that mad about it. But Rap Shit isn’t shy about casting mildly puritanical aspersions towards its own characters. At the start of season 1, Shawna is working as a hotel clerk and running the occasional credit card scam with coworker Maurice for extra cash; Mia works multiple jobs and does OnlyFans to support her four-year-old daughter Melissa. The duo’s first minor hit, “Seduce & Scheme,” leverages these lived truths to position them as bad bitches who take no shit. But the scams are a source of increasing anxiety for Shawna, and Mia’s sex work is dreary at best, even when it leads to high-end hotels and fine dining.

Mia isn’t the one with the short end of the stick. The pair’s manager, Chastity (Jonica Booth), is a party promoter and a pimp. As hard as Shawna and Mia have it, Chastity’s arc over the show serves as a reminder that there are different levels to being “broke.” Still, Chastity’s disparate jobs are more alike than Mia and Shawna care to admit, and Rae is keenly aware of how female objectification transcends status. By the end of season 2, Mia and Shawna are leveraging rap beef for attention and promoting a new single by dancing on TikTok after ditching Chastity for the fickle Francois. It’s hard to tell if they finally made it or simply peaked too soon.

By Vivian Medithi

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