“Rap Sh!t” may be grounded in reality, but there’s something lightly surreal about the experience of watching it. Issa Rae’s new comedy, showrun by “Insecure” writer Syreeta Singleton and premiering July 21 on HBO Max, bobs and weaves between its stories and the ones its characters are constantly posting on Instagram. The camera adopts the perspective of their phones as they scroll and Facetime; people watch each other’s stories with suspicion and envy; onscreen graphics send a stream of comments and hearts up the sides of the screen. As friends Shawna (Aida Osman) and Mia (KaMillion) chase their rapping dreams and the fame it would take to achieve them, they fastidiously document and post everything — everything — that could convince the world that they’re on the rise. And even when this TV approximation of social media doesn’t feel especially realistic in terms of its #content, seeing the world quite literally through Shawna and Mia’s eyes nonetheless makes “Rap Sh!t” feel different, not to mention downright immersive.
Swapping the Inglewood, Calif., of “Insecure” for Miami, Rae’s pilot quickly introduces us to a loose community bonded in an eternal hustle for more money, more respect, and more satisfaction with their lives. Though the series is shot with an eye for bringing out the natural, sun-washed beauty of a beach city like Miami, it’s also straight up about the lengths its characters sometimes have to go to if they want to enjoy it. Everyone on “Rap Sh!t” wants more than they’ve got, and are convinced they can turn things around given the money and opportunity — which, after spending enough time with them, is hard to argue. They all have more talent and charisma than they often get credit for; watching them figure out how to capitalize on that fact proves to be “Rap Sh!t”’s greatest asset.
Two years after going viral for a social justice rap, Shawna’s working as a hotel concierge and nursing her wounds after an enterprising producer friend (Jaboukie Young-White, scene-stealing as always but used sparingly here) failed to launch her career any further. Her old friend Mia, now a single mom, is making ends meet as a makeup artist and OnlyFans cam girl while arguing with her child’s father Lamont (RJ Cyler). Meanwhile, Shawna’s coworker Maurice (Daniel Augustin) runs credit card scams on the side, while hotel mainstay Chastity (Jonica Booth) networks for prostitutes and her own business interests alike.
In the six episodes made available for critics (out of an eventual eight in total), Shawna and Mia’s unlikely partnership as a rap duo takes up the most narrative real estate, to the point that an episode shifting gears to follow Chastity around town, for example, can be more jarring than anything else. But whenever Mia and Shawna are together, playing off each other as both friends and rappers, “Rap Sh!t” clicks back into place. (It helps that the show clearly got real-life rappers to write their bars, and indeed counts Yung Miami and JT of the rap group City Girls, whose story undeniably mirrors that of Shawna and Mia, as executive producers.)
Much to the condescending chagrin of Shawn’s lawyer boyfriend, Cliff (Devon Terrell), Mia quickly erodes Shawna’s determination to remain a socially conscious rapper so that they can just let loose and have some actual fun. With the exception of their very first try, their writing process is mostly just letting the lyrics flow right out of them and pumping each other up with infectious thrills of joy. Osman makes the most of her character’s simmering ambition, and is particularly good when playing up Shawna’s struggle to reconcile her core values with the pure fun of letting loose. Still, it’s KaMillion who steals the show as she conveys Mia’s vulnerability without losing sight of the sharp spark that could — and should — make her a star.
The first two episodes of “Rap Sh!t” premiere Thursday, July 21 at 6 p.m. PT/9 p.m. ET on HBO Max.
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