Amid the current TV landscape of sci-fi stuff, action-y crime stuff, thirst traps, and whatever it is The Rehearsal is doing, Rap Sh!t — which premiered July 21 on HBO Max — is having the most fun. Seasons don’t matter in TV scheduling anymore, but the last time a series felt this appropriate for long days and balmy nights was TNT’s Claws. Rap Sh!t follows in the footsteps of that Florida noir’s humid atmosphere, scammer subplots, and romantic melodrama via Shawna (Aida Osman) and Mia (KaMillion), two friends in Miami who decide to make a go of it as a rap duo. This setup mimics the backstory of the real group City Girls, but Rap Sh!t chooses evocation over beat-for-beat re-creation: Yung Miami and JT serve as co–executive producers, and “Seduce and Scheme,” the phenomenally catchy first song the duo records together, nods to their style.
The perpetual question for Shawna, Mia, and the women in their orbit is whether they are in charge of their own destinies or only manipulated into feeling that way. Is Shawna getting reasonable revenge against irritating customers by stealing their credit-card information at her hotel day job, or is she carrying all the danger for the other two men in the scheme? Is Mia working her sexual power in her relationship with a shadowy-faced white man who pays for her time, or is his appreciation more like fetishization? Is art imitating life when Shawna and Mia rap about taking advantage of their admirers and getting their bag, or is it a fantasy to think the men who flit in and out of their lives will stick around once Shawna and Mia receive attention without them? When the two argue about Lil’ Kim’s legacy — Shawna paints her as a “puppet” of the patriarchy; Mia idolizes her as a “woman’s fantasy” — the series digs into the complicated, sometimes conflicting ways women are seen in the music industry. The question of whether Lil’ Kim was powerless or powerful hovers over the duo as Shawna and Mia attempt to secure fame on their own terms.
Rap Sh!t contrasts the glamorous, high-priced nightclubs where Shawna and Mia try to get their song played with the sleepier working-class neighborhoods in which they live. Here, Issa Rae presents the city’s varying subworlds in the same way she depicted South Los Angeles in Insecure. There’s a dense heaviness to the coastal air and a gauzy quality to Miami’s overwhelming sunlight that makes these women seem like they’re battling the environment along with a patriarchal industry that wants them pigeonholed as either scantily clad Iggy Azalea types twerking in music videos or overly somber Erykah Badus lambasting injustice. The totality of what Shawna and Mia are facing makes their clever, braggadocious, and anthemic songs that much more compelling.
But Rap Sh!t stretches too much in rushing its characterizations to fill out Shawna and Mia’s world in the middle half of the season. Club promoter and sex-work coordinator Chastity (Jonica Booth) gets an early episode of backstory that diverts attention from Shawna and Mia and doesn’t fit into the season’s overall flow until her ambitions become clearer later on. Shawna’s boyfriend, Cliff (Devon Terrell, whose previous performance as Barack Obama makes for a cheeky bit of casting), undergoes an abrupt 180-degree personality shift so he can deliver a message about respectability politics the show clearly wants to unpack but fails to navigate gracefully. And Rap Sh!t threatens to drown its central narrative in Mia’s friction with her negligent mother, Chastity’s spars with her uncle and her girlfriend, and the inner workings of a strip club called the Office. It’s a lot, and that overload is also present in how the series is shot: Scenes are made to look like they’ve been recorded via Instagram Live videos and Stories or as part of Twitch and OnlyFans streams. The approach is meant to reflect the characters’ overreliance on documenting every moment of their lives as a means of gathering followers (and is maybe a reflection of COVID-era production limitations), but the intention doesn’t improve the clumsy look.
The show has so much potential, though, that these initial hiccups are easy to overlook. Rae’s writing remains charmingly sly, the depiction of Miami is immersive, and the natural, winning chemistry between Osman and KaMillion establishes Rap Sh!t as the summer’s premier hangout show. “We got the opportunity to do what the fuck we want to do,” Mia convinces Shawna, and Rap Sh!t has a great time illustrating that.