In 2018, Miami-bred rap duo City Girls (JT and Yung Miami) dropped the mixtape Period, featuring a song detailing their rise to success: “Rap Shit.”
My own daddy said I wouldn't be shit / I looked at him, like we gon' see bitch / I'm up now, I don't give a fuck about my past bitch / I don't really fuck with this rap shit
The track has all the elements of City Girls music: a braggadocio anthem for the girls who are defying the odds and making it in a fake, male dominated industry on their own terms, with your daddy’s money. Even as they share their real hardships, the mood is fun, something for the summertime, no matter the season.
Set in Miami, Florida, and very loosely based on the show's executive producers City Girls, Rap Sh!t follows Shawna (Aida Osman) and Mia (KaMillion), two former high school friends who grew apart and find themselves back in each other’s orbit when life doesn’t go as planned.
Now a hotel clerk, Shawna’s rapper dreams have stalled as her conscious lyrics and incessant need to cover up her face and body keep her music and style from resonating widely. Mia turned to sex work to support her young daughter, but her large social media fanbase doesn’t always translate into the dollars she needs to make ends meet. After a drunken night of reconnecting, Shawna and Mia decide to form a rap group.
Issa may have come to prominence being relatably awkward and insecure, but in Rap Sh!t we see a creator standing fully in her confidence, using social media as a cinematic device to expose layers of her characters. So much could go wrong with switching between IG lives, stories, FaceTime and IRL to tell the story of these Black women and how they perform vs. who they really are. But under the leadership of showrunner Syreeta Singleton, the transitions are smooth, and the device is not an indictment of the characters' (and the viewers!) social media obsession, but a compelling revelation.
With Issa's Raedio label serving up the soundtrack for the series, the music becomes a character itself, revealing even more about where Mia and Shawna are in their lives. Their first hit song, “Seduce and Scheme” sums up the duo perfectly. While Mia knows how to get a man to break some bread off, Shawna’s also got some tricks up her sleeve that might not be totally legal. The two are in survival mode and become each other’s life rafts. Their rebuilt friendship is the heart of the show and works because Osman and KaMillion ooze chemistry.
Osman, who also writes for the show, brings sincerity and vulnerability to Shawna who may be oblivious to her own self-righteousness but has a heart of gold that makes you root for her, even as she’s stealing people’s credit cards at work. And real-life rapper KaMillion was a reality TV star on Love and Hip Hop: Miami and the “Queen of Twerk Music,” but the multi-faceted talent moves like a seasoned vet through Mia’s hilarious one-liners and heart-breaking desperation.
In a show full of rising stars, Jonica Booth stands out as pimp and club-promoter Chastity, the self-proclaimed Duke of Miami, who tries to hustle her way into being Shawna and Mia’s manager. The always excellent RJ Cyler rounds out the cast as Mia’s baby daddy Lamont, whose immaturity makes him seem like more of a deadbeat than he intends.
Devon Terrell’s Cliff serves as the foil to Lamont as Shawna’s law school-future politician boyfriend. But this is a show about the complexities of Black life and Black love, and it shatters the stereotypes of what makes for a good partner. By episode six, Cyler has an opportunity to flex his charm, and does not disappoint.
It’s in that sixth episode (directed by Insecure alum Amy Aniobi and the last of the eight-episode first season given to press) when it clicks for me why I love this show. Yes, it’s fun and laugh-out-loud funny from the jump and the characters are consistently full and beautifully Black and specific to Miami – but there’s something else that’s crystallized toward the latter end of the series.
Episodes five and six take us through some serious issues that Black women face; in other hands, bringing this subject matter to screen could have done some damage to its Black audience. But if we know anything about Issa Rae, it’s that she’s rooting for everybody Black. In her and Singleton's hands, the trauma explored on screen is authentic without retraumatizing the Black audience for the white gaze.
Though I haven’t seen the final two episodes yet, if they cover any of the real-life drama the City Girls have publicly faced, Shawna and Mia might be in for some serious heartbreak. But there is joy in knowing that this team of writers cares about the viewers as much as its characters. Like all of Issa’s work, we love it because it loved us first.
Rap Sh!t premieres on HBO July 21 at 9 p.m. EST.'
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