clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Issa Rae’s ‘Rap Sh!t’ Is the Show We Thought ‘Atlanta’ Would Be

Following on the success of ‘Insecure,’ the HBO Max comedy explores the grit and grind of achieving fame, rather than the effects of it

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Back in 2015, FX announced its newest comedy with a simple logline: “Atlanta revolves around two cousins on their way up through the Atlanta rap scene.” That brief summary implied a different kind of show than the one Atlanta turned out to be: a screwball sitcom about an odd couple and their misadventures of the week. Donald Glover’s show ended up more moody, and less linear, than its description—or even its pilot—implied. Seven years later, though, that alternate version has finally made it to air. Rap Sh!t trades Atlanta for Miami, and cousins for estranged high school friends. The series nonetheless shares a starting point with its predecessor and peer, even if it proceeds in its own direction.

Atlanta doesn’t exactly lack for successors: shows like Ramy and Reservation Dogs echo its wandering focus and bittersweet tone, while Dave is another rap saga led by its creator-star, even if Glover himself dislikes the comparison. Nor is Atlanta the only show to which Rap Sh!t bears a more-than-passing resemblance. Created by Issa Rae, the HBO Max half-hour is the highly anticipated follow-up to Insecure, which recently wrapped a five-season run that made Rae a household name. (Rap Sh!t showrunner Syreeta Singleton served as a story editor for Insecure’s final two seasons.) The echoes are obvious long before the credits roll: like Insecure, Rap Sh!t follows a deep, complex friendship between two young Black women, set against a backdrop that’s studiously place-specific. Its episodes are even named in a similar style, all sharing the same slangy catchphrase—in this case, “Something for the City” or “Something for the Girls.”

Rap Sh!t may overlap with Insecure, but its story is distinct and rooted in reality. The show fictionalizes the rapid ascent of Miami rap group City Girls, whose JT and Yung Miami serve as executive producers. (So do Kevin “Coach K” Lee and Pierre “Pee” Thomas, cofounders of City Girls’ record label Quality Control.) City Girls exploded into popularity in 2018, earning the attention of luminaries from Drake, who featured the two on “In My Feelings,” to Rae, who put City Girls on the Insecure soundtrack before signing on to work with them. Their rise was made all the more remarkable by Yung Miami’s inexperience—she’d never rapped so much as a bar before summer 2017—and JT’s incarceration. Just as City Girls were gaining momentum, half of the duo was sentenced to two years in prison for credit card fraud; in a bit of unfortunate timing, JT was released in March 2020.

Such a rapid rise and bumpy road are clear Hollywood catnip. Rap Sh!t nonetheless makes some tweaks to this ready-made blueprint. The real City Girls may have their differences—“Miami brings the glamor and I bring the attitude,” JT once told The Cut—but they largely present as a united front. When we meet Rap Sh!t’s Shawna (Aida Osman) and Mia (KaMillion), they’re not even close, let alone collaborators. Shawna is a college dropout working the front desk at South Beach’s Plymouth Hotel; she only reconnects with Mia after several years when the single mom hits Shawna up in a desperate bid for childcare. That incident foreshadows Rap Sh!t’s interest in the relationship between economic necessity and artistic inspiration. Rap is a passion, but it’s also a path up and out.

In some ways, Shawna and Mia do map onto their real-life counterparts. Mia has plenty of hustles, from makeup artistry to OnlyFans, but rapping isn’t one of them; she’s a novice like Yung Miami, who’s also had to balance hip-hop with parenting a young child. Shawna, meanwhile, helps her coworker Maurice (Daniel Augustin) fleece guests for extra cash on the side. Anyone familiar with JT’s legal troubles will feel a gnawing anxiety the first time she pockets some plastic.

But Rap Sh!t also plays up the contrast between the two to drum up conflict and draw out themes, often requiring some invention. Shawna may be a rapper, but she limits herself to socially conscious snoozers, posting videos in a mask to make a facile point about objectification. (Upon watching, one character asks: “Is this for, like, Women’s History Month?”) She’s encouraged, or maybe enabled, by her long-distance boyfriend Cliff (Devon Terrell), whose law school stint in New York fills her with personal and professional insecurity. While he’s booking internships and flirting with classmates, she’s still floundering.

Shawna keeps an eye on Cliff via FaceTime and Instagram Stories. These scenes are just one example of Rap Sh!t’s stylistic trademark: a fluid, near-constant use of social media, woven seamlessly throughout eight episodes. (Critics were shown six in advance.) Pilot director Sadé Clacken Joseph, who’s helmed music videos and commercials for Common and T.I., sets the tone, toggling freely between Snapchats, Instagram Lives, phone footage, and cam sessions. The show isn’t entirely set within screens, like Unfriended or all those early-pandemic Zoom specials. Instead, it puts the internet on equal footing with real life. There are no sudden shifts in aspect ratio to mimic the dimensions of a smartphone; the post-production team simply adds a few bars to the top of the screen for a Story, or a yellow button in the center for a Snap.

Rap Sh!t’s use of online platforms isn’t just innovative. It’s key to the story it wants to tell about a world where clout and musical cred are increasingly interrelated. Like Yung Miami and JT, Mia and Shawna are coming up in a post-Cardi B universe, one where notoriety can come before a real body of work. Shawna brings the lyrical skill, but it’s Mia who comes with an online following—plus the understanding that everyone’s a commodity, whether they like it or not. “What’s so wrong with having n****s look at you?” she asks Shawna, who’d rather rap about student loans. And for a show about digital natives, leaning on social media is as much a practical measure as it is a statement. After their initial reunion, Shawna and Mia have a drunken heart-to-heart in Mia’s car, which they broadcast in full on Instagram Live. They start freestyling and hit on the catchphrase that becomes their first single: “Seduce and Scheme.”

Whether Rap Sh!t’s protagonists practice what they preach is another central concern. Mia lectures her followers about not bothering with broke suitors, but when the cameras are off, she argues about childcare costs with her daughter’s father. Shawna talks a big game about female empowerment, but she’s still hung up on Cliff’s approval. (Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t exactly warm to her new public persona.) Both Osman and KaMillion sell the core paradox of their characters. They’re capable of confidence and crippling self-doubt in equal measure.

As Rap Sh!t proceeds from the pilot, the contrast with Atlanta grows especially instructive. On the latter show, Paper Boi’s career takes on a life of its own, its ascent seemingly indifferent to the rapper’s efforts or lack thereof. On Rap Sh!t, getting big takes work—desperate, undignified work, where one small step forward can mean falling back on your ass. Entire episodes are dedicated to getting “Seduce and Scheme” played at the club, or onto a playlist. (Spotify, which owns The Ringer, is almost a character in and of itself.) If Atlanta is largely interested in the effects of fame, Rap Sh!t explores the grit and grind that can be its cause, though success is hardly guaranteed. Mia and Shawna are starting from the bottom. Wherever they end up, it’s a pleasure to watch them try.