America loves a rapper that finally makes it big, but it also loves crucifying them once they’ve gotten there. So in the second episode of Robbin’ Season, it makes sense that Al gets robbed by everyone: His plug of ten years steals his cash at gunpoint, the “tastemakers” at Not Spotify steal his time, white girls singing acoustic rap covers even strip Al of his story, and it’s a paradoxical reversal for our man. For the entire first season he couldn’t catch a break for being himself, but now that he’s finally “made it,” Al is finding that everyone suddenly needs him to be someone else.
Paper Boi isn’t the only one having a hard time performing: Earn is starting to realize that a manager’s shoes might be too big for his feet, while Tracy (yes, he’s still around!) spends the episode prepping for a job interview (“Some marketing job or some shit”). Everyone’s on stage, but no one’s really enjoying it, and “Sportin’ Waves” is a master class on the forces underlying those performances: code-switching and authenticity — or the lack thereof.
Because everyone code-switches, but it’s rare that we catch it on television. And when I say rare, I mean you just don’t see that shit at all. Partly because syndicated shows aren’t terribly conducive to dynamic characterization, but also because you seldom see those characters navigating different levels of class. They’re either rich, or they’re dumb rich. Or they’re deeply suburban. Or they occupy a space so privileged by the dominant culture that they bypass those interactions altogether. So the plots we know and love usually aren’t tackling how poverty interacts with wealth within the same season, let alone a single episode. Or how, in some cases, depending on where you are and who you’re with, you are literally performing. Or how performing is all some people can do.
We find ourselves with three performances in this episode: Al’s is the first, and its results are the steepest. He exchanges pleasantries with a business associate and promptly ends up robbed because, as his plug says, he’ll make the money back from the track. (Of course, Al isn’t making cash off of the track. As he’s told us before, “There is no money anywhere near rap.”) There’s barely a moment to recover before he finds himself in the glossy offices of Not Spotify, where he’s regaled with small talk (everything in the fridge is “all organic, gluten-free”), office jokes (“everyone calls me 35 Savage”), and the absence of a CD player in the entire building (“it’s a new state-of-the-art system — it’s all wireless, and fully integrated into the platform”). But Al isn’t having any of what Earn deems “a vibe,” to the extent that he walks out of a live performance. Later on, in his search for another plug (by way of Darius, who knows everyone), Al’s status as the next big thing drives those transactions to nowhere. In one, he immediately ends up on Instagram (“#igotthatpaper”), and in another, Al finds himself in a similar hell: a group chat he wanted no part in.
For better and worse, the catalyst for Al’s come-up is now a hinderance: his “authenticity” has become very much a drag. But in a moment when what we expect from our rappers, and who’s setting out to remold that paradigm, is expanding, the question of what they owe their audience is just as taxing. If a rapper’s hard on tape, is he obligated to maintain that persona the entire calendar year? Can he take time off with his partner? With his twins? Or what if he has the opportunity to get the bag while he’s at it? What does he stand to lose when playing the game means playing a chameleon? As Al and Earn watch a young man literally dance on a table for a very white audience, Earn notes that the building “has a vibe.” Al agrees. But even then, before Al walks out on the whole thing, Earn is quick to concede that it’s all going to pay off in the end.
Considering Earn’s own ongoing odyssey, his optimism feels suspect: He starts this episode broke, only to cash out on Darius’s puppy investment from way back when. (As Earn notes, “PEOPLE LOVE DOGS.”) It’s $4,000 dollars, which is a lot of money, but then Tracy enters the picture saying that he can double it. Al confirms that Tracy is good on the offer through a gift-card scam. Which sounds attractive, I guess, but again: $4,000. For nothing! And Earn just yesterday moved out of a storage complex. Of course you and I wouldn’t bite, but that wouldn’t make great television, so Earn takes Tracy up on his offer and puts all $4,000 on the card. He’s only one transaction down before Tracy sends him a curt text: “They’re onto you.”
But before that, strolling through the mall, after monologuing on the emotional intelligence of BoJack, Tracy notes that Earn “seems like the preppy type.” When Earn asks why, Tracy says he doesn’t know — Earn just “seems like the type.” Then Tracy proceeds to ask how Earn goes about talking to white folks (or, really, how to switch codes) and Earn says he’s not sure. (Which is inaccurate, but that doesn’t necessarily mean our dude’s lying.) He eventually offers two bits of advice: “Probably not call them white folks,” and “Talk confidently.” With a grin, Tracy says he can do that, hyping up his possible employment before proceeding to steal several pair of shoes as Earn and a shop attendant look on. The threat here is, naturally, minimal: The store has a no-chase policy. As Tracy says, “He gotta keep giving me great customer service. That’s all he could do.”
It’s also worth noting the abundance of white people in this episode, after the series has set a precedent for nearly none at all. Each of the white folks we meet, or at least the ones with speaking roles, are profiting off of black performance. The episode ends with a final duet of those acts, the first of them being Clark County in a Yoo-hoo commercial (donning a flow that’s eerily reminiscent of another guy’s). But the commercial and Clark’s presentation harken back to those two young men who kicked off the season: They’re listening to Clark’s music, with the lifestyle it implies, and they’re trapping and dying to the soundtrack of those beats while Clark sips Yoo-hoo, dancing all the way to the bank.
And then there’s Tracy’s job interview, which is a train wreck. The audience sees it coming as the camera lingers on Tracy’s face, and everyone silently seated in the waiting room sees it as Tracy rehearses aloud, and the black woman who opens the door for Tracy sees it when she smiles at him, and the white man interviewing him sees it before Tracy even opens his mouth. Unfortunately, he says, the institution is fully staffed at this time (despite ongoing interviews), so they won’t be able to offer Tracy a job. The disbelief that bubbles across Tracy’s face is mortifying, but possibly less so than his white interviewer’s reaction to — and expectation of — the resulting outburst.
But getting the benefit of the doubt without having to perform is one of a person’s basest dignities. The only thing more shocking than a couple of bros from Atlanta without it, would be if they actually were given that dignity by the world around them. So it matters that Earn, who’s performing for Al, can’t be the manager Paper Boi needs him to be. It matters that Tracy, who’s performing for white people, isn’t able to make the leap and lashes out. And it matters that Al, who isn’t performing, finds himself too big for his old life and not sculpted enough for his new one, until he ends up punished for being himself. That’s what got him where he is today, and all of a sudden it’s no longer good enough. But if there’s a recurring theme in “Sportin’ Waves”, it’s that everyone’s being watched, and the expectation for performance is greater when you’re a black American.