This review contains mild spoilers for the first episodes of Rap Sh!t season two.
The first minute of Rap Sh!t‘s pilot episode is seen entirely through the lens of Instagram live. Tourists coasting down Ocean Drive, sorority girls turning up at a Miami bar, couples playing on a lush beach, and a soon-to-be bride checking into a boutique hotel for her bachelorette weekend. We’re introduced to the show’s lead character, Shawna (played by non-binary actor, Aida Osman), in an Instagram video: a hotel guest — caught in the background of the bachelorette’s live — recognizes her from an old video of her freestyling.
Within the span of that minute, Issa Rae’s Rap Sh!t announces what kind of show it’ll be. It’s a show baked in the Miami heat. With the sounds of Miami’s own Trick Daddy thumping in the background, that minute asserts that the city will permeate every facet of the the show, even when it ventures outside the city limits. The opening also reveals that Rap Sh!t is very much a show of the moment and, of course, any story of this moment cannot be told without technology and social media. Much of Rap Sh!t is told through the filter of IG Live, in part, because that’s how this generation engages with the world. But also if you’re an aspiring creative — especially an aspiring creative woman — looking to build your brand and being online isn’t a choice, it’s a necessity.
This week Rap Sh!t returns for its second season and our first glimpse of Shawna and Mia (Kamillion) is now through the lens of an actual video camera, as they dance along with Reina Reign (Kat Cunning), on the set of the music video for “Tongue.” In fact, there’s not a single IG Live moment in the entire first episode. While social media re-emerges as a device later in season, the message is clear: for Shawna and Mia, the game has changed. It’s no longer about stunting for the camera. It’s about putting in the work to make sure this rap shit turns into something real.
At the end of the first season, the girls seem poised to do just that: they were going on tour with Reina. But there’s a catch — there’s always a catch with music producer Francois Boom (Jaboukie Young-White). They’re not getting paid, they can’t perform their own songs, and their stage time is limited to supporting Reina during her performance of “Trouble.” They’ll camp out in bunks on a tour bus between cities and be crammed into meager accommodations during tour stops. In short, it’s about to be awful. But Francois assures them that, at the end of the tour, they’ll produce an EP and record labels will be clamoring to offer them a million dollar deal.
Shawna wants to believe Francois. Her face lights up at the prospect of being signed and she presses the group’s manager, Chastity (Jonica Booth), to unequivocally agree to his plan. It feels like a far cry from the conscious rapper version of Shawna we met early on, but, to put it plainly, the girl is down bad. She’s a person of interest in a credit card fraud investigation. She broke up with her long-time boyfriend and her burgeoning relationship with Maurice is upended by the criminal investigation. Her parents threaten to cut her out of their lives if she continues making bad decisions, including going on tour. Shawna needs a win — she needs this to work — so she swallows her skepticism, frustration, and anger, and presses on. Aida Osman carries Shawna’s story with aplomb, showcasing every bit of emotion even as Shawna tries so hard to hide it.
It’s Jonica Booth’s Chastity who really benefits from the show’s stylistic and setting changes. In the first season of Rap Sh!t, our view of her is limited. She’s a part-time pimp, drafted into the “family business” by her uncle, and she keeps her top earner close; there’s a hint that there’s something more than business between them, but Chastity never allows it to compromise the work. She knows everybody but you never get the sense that anyone knows her. Insomuch that she’s part of the first season’s IG Live point of view, it’s less about her and more about a foray into party promoting and artist management. The self-proclaimed “Duke of Miami” uses her connections to get her artists into the door and when her connections fall short, she hustles to get things done. Chastity walks with swagger and confidence even if that confidence felt unearned.
But what happens when you take the Duke of Miami out of Miami, as Rap Sh!t does in its second season? What happens when a pimp has to leave her stable unattended for a month to go off on an unpaid trip? And what happens when her ticket out of pimping and hustling is threatened by Francois Boom who is clearly coming for the Duke’s spot? Chastity’s storyline is absolutely the best thing about Rap Sh!t‘s sophomore effort. Chastity still delivers that swagger and she is nothing if not a hustler but this season also gives her the opportunity to be scared and vulnerable. That rounding of the character, plus the fact that Francois is an absolute jerk, makes it impossible to not cheer for her.
If there is a shortcoming to Rap Sh!t‘s new style, it is that it’s less funny than in its first season. There are still plenty of laughs to be had, particularly when Mia gets together with her homegirls, Alesia and Nelly (Brittney Jefferson and DomiNque Perry), but there’s a noticeable tonal shift. Personally, I liked it even if it’ll be jarring for fans of the first season. Also, it felt a bit like Mia got shortchanged in the character development department this season. Through the six episodes provided to critics, Mia’s still out there seducing and scheming which, though fun to watch, doesn’t add any additional complexity to the character.
Rap Sh!t‘s second season arrives on HBO Max a few weeks after the City Girls — the Miami duo who served as inspiration and executive producers of the show — dropped their new album. RAW (Real Ass Whores) was supposed to be their moment: JT and Yung Miami’s stars had risen considerably since their last effort. They were ubiquitous on the hip-hop scene: fixtures on the blogs, on social media, and at award shows. Yung Miami was acting, podcasting and talking about a future reality show. Everything seemed primed for them to finally have that chart topping album.
But, instead, the album flopped.
“It’s tough times. You get what you put in, in this shit,” JT admitted, reflecting on the album’s poor sales.
It’s a real life lesson that, ironically, drives the entire second season of Rap Sh!t. You get what you put in and, this season Shawna, Mia, and Chastity are putting in work.
Rap Sh!t is now streaming on Max.