Rap Sh!t review: A meandering series that could have been a movie

Rap Sh!t. Photograph by Alicia Vera/HBO Max.
Rap Sh!t. Photograph by Alicia Vera/HBO Max. /

Spoilers ahead of Rap Sh!t

Rap Sh!t is supposed to tell the beginnings of Shawna (Aida Osman) and Mia’s (KaMillion) rise in the Miami music scene. The unlikely pair were high school friends whose lives took different paths after graduation. But, they reunite years later when Mia needs someone to watch her daughter while she works and Shawna’s down to help her.

The sense of kinship is there from the first interaction between both women. You can tell they have a history together that strained over time, but their friendship isn’t dead. Just dormant. That’s why when a drunken night out prompts an on the fly rap on Instagram live, the two are willing to capitalize on the buzz of their song about seducing and scheming.

The chemistry between Osman and KaMillion anchors Rap Sh!t. As the two leads, they draw viewers into their different worlds and leave you wanting to know more about their lives. Shawna isn’t where she thought she’d be. She’s college educated but doesn’t have her degree, her boyfriend Cliff (Devon Terrell) is in law school on the other side of the country, she’s scamming on the side, and works full-time at the Plymouth hotel.

Shawna’s known for a conscious rap of hers that went viral, but that’s about all the mark she’s made in music. It’s not even a footnote in halls of rap. Virtually no one is paying attention to what she brings to the table, and it’s been hard seeing others sell out and succeed or screw artists like her over on their path to greatness.

Mia is a single mother working three jobs to make ends meet. She’s a make-up artist, a sex worker, and an employee at an unnamed job that she hates. Her daughter’s father, Lamont, is in the picture, but he’s a producer and often brushing her off to spend time in the studio.

RJ Cyler imbues the character Lamont with a softness and charm that’ll have viewers understanding what Mia saw in him originally despite him needing to get it together when it comes to being a better parental partner for her and their daughter.

For Mia, forming a rap group wasn’t on her mind, but it came into her life when she needed a purpose beyond being a hard worker and a mother. It’s one of the only things in her life that’s for her and helps her express herself when she has very few other outlets to do so.

Had the focus of Rap Sh!t remained on these two, the six episodes provided to press for review, would have felt tighter and better embodied why viewers were encouraged to tune in.

Rap Sh!t could have been great if its premise didn’t get lost

The HBO Max series is supposed to be about these women and the start of their music career as a duo. But, it expands into vignettes about the other people in their lives which drags down the plot. The asides about Lamont, the check-ins with Cliff, and even some of the story with Chastity the Duke, played by a scene stealing Jonica Booth, fit into the story.

But other than that, there are significant points where it felt like Rap Sh!t was trying to fill time. Maurice (Daniel Augustin), Shawna’s flirty co-worker and friend, has his own subplot that does circle back into the main story, but ultimately felt unnecessary. Chastity’s got a whole narrative about her managing sex workers that barely even touches Mia and Shawna’s plot.

There’s a lot of relationship dynamic negotiation in the series that for the most part works to develop the characters. But, for a show called Rap Sh!t, our main duo spends more time navigating their lives than actually working on their music. They seem less like a rap group and more like two women who like hopping on the mic to vibe occasionally.

Toward the beginning of the series, the two have a meaningful and worthwhile conversation about women in rap, the male gaze, and playing the game. For years, Shawna hadn’t taken the note that her insistence on only being a conscious rapper with nothing to market her beyond that simply wouldn’t work in the industry as it is now.

She wanted to be different and didn’t want to sexualize herself in order to get attention. Mia, however, critiques the idea that women in rap who flaunt their sexuality are doing so to appeal to the male gaze. In her view, artists like Lil Kim embody a woman’s fantasy. Yes, it’s about power and image, but it’s also about ownership of their bodies, their abilities, and how they use those things to get what they want because they can. And the rest is the game.

Through Mia’s lens, Shawna’s argument breaks down because her refusal to engage with that perspective in order to present a counter option is still dependent upon the opinions of men. Either way women lose so why not engage with your music and your image how you want to regardless of how men may feel about it?

That conversation is great and then it doesn’t come back into Rap Sh!t‘s narrative at all for Mia and Shawna’s music outside of how Cliff feels about it. So this idea that the show is walking that tight rope trying to balance Shawna’s love of conscious lyricism and Mia’s outlook on the industry is non-existent.

I wish it wasn’t because as the audience, we’re here for these two women. We here for their explorations of the music industry and the double standards that women have to navigate. Even at half hour episodes, Rap Sh!t drags, and it does so because whenever the narrative moves away from these two, it feels like the show is just playing around in Miami. It loses its connecting threads and that’s unfortunate because KaMillion is a stand out performer as Mia.

If this were a 90 minute to two hour movie, it would be more cohesive. Time most likely would have been spent where it needed to be with these two up and coming rappers, their vision for their future, and how the supporting characters fold into that.

Yes, it’s great that Rap Sh!t is also being used as platform to uplift real life Miami rappers. The show’s use of technology and how it bleeds into everything the characters do is an interesting medium of storytelling especially the use of FaceTime calls and Instagram lives. I’m a fan of all of that but at the end of the day this show is supposed to be about a rap group and Shawna and Mia spend the majority of time doing everything but marketing themselves and laying down tracks.

In many ways it feels like the prequel before we get to the actual series and that’s disappointing.

Next. Rap Sh!t soundtrack: Every song from episodes 1-2. dark