It’s impossible not to root for Issa Rae’s ‘Rap S—’

Class stratification, music breakout, single motherhood, and obsession with social media are just a few of the topics covered in Issa Rae’s new HBO Max series, Rap S—. Laying bold pop culture flourishes on meaningful personal journeys, the vibrant half-hour comedy follows estranged high school friends Shawna (Aida Osman) and Mia (KaMillion) as they find themselves in their 20s and form an unlikely rap duo.

The series, which premiered Thursday for two of eight episodes, is Rae’s first major project following “Insecure,” her groundbreaking HBO show about a group of black girlfriends surviving in career-driven Los Angeles. “Rap S—” continues to focus on black characters but shifts the action to a rarely seen slice of Miami and builds its story around a less affluent group of acquaintances loosely connected by a shared history, reunited by music, and dependent on everyone are others doing whatever it takes to pay the rent.

The chemistry among the crew is immediately palpable thanks to the outstanding performances of Osman, KaMillion and Jonica Booth, who plays the hustler Chastity. The latter is the self-proclaimed Duke of Miami, an aspiring music executive who makes a living matching independent sex workers with clients. Call her a kinder, gentler pimp (more on that later).

Across the six episodes available to watch, the cast will document the fabulous aspects of their lives through Instagram posts, videos and live feeds. Viewers of the show become de facto followers, and much of the “Rap S—” is filtered through Shawna and Mia’s mobile apps. Despite the splashy overlay of floating emojis, “recording” icons, and a pounding soundtrack (City Girls rappers Yung Miami and JT are credited as executive producers), the character’s authenticity, struggle, and vulnerability propel this series with “Uncertain” Author Syreeta to Singleton as showrunner.

Running a law firm does not belong in the future of these women. Escaping poverty and hopeless service jobs is the goal and making music is the way out. It is impossible Not cheering them on as they face a world of limited opportunity and still manage to make the tough fights fun, sexy and moving.

Shawna found success two years ago when her social tracks went viral, but she’s lost momentum and now works as a hotel concierge in a beachside tourist trap. Her colleague Maurice (Daniel Augustin) runs credit card fraud on the side and Shawna gets involved. Mia is a single mom, amateur makeup artist, and OnlyFans camgirl who peddles porn to make a living. Baby Daddy Lamont (RJ Cyler) is there sometimes when he’s not in the studio editing his own tracks. The Duke of Miami drives a vintage Cadillac convertible and appears to be living large, an illusion that has pushed her financial situation to the brink.

Shawna corresponds with her long-distance boyfriend Cliff (Devon Terrell), who is studying law in New York, but they grow apart. The wedge is evident in his condescending attitude toward her reunion with Mia and her shift from “meaningful” lyrics to club-ready fare. Tension eventually spreads on social media.

Deeper questions about how these young women view their sexuality and self-esteem saturate “Rap S—.” Shawna has resisted the sexually explicit approach of her fellow artists; She turned down the suggestion of her former male manager Francois (Jaboukie Young-White) to twerk himself into the spotlight like his other artists, and her career suffered as a result. Shawna responded to the male gaze by wearing a mask and hoodie in her posts, but Mia points out that covering up is also a reaction to what men want, and Shawna is starting to see submission in a different light .

Still the male gaze is often the vantage point in this series as the camera encounters strip clubs and sex workers, prostitution and online porn. Shawna’s former manager pimped female artists for rap hits. Is the duke’s role as recruiter for self-possessed women in a fringe trade an improvement? It’s hard to say as the Duke’s motivations or even his feelings regarding her surgery are not explored. It’s an aspect of “Rap S—” that’s initially muddled, although answers may surface in the last two episodes. Maybe not. Life offline is never clearly outlined or defined, and “Rap S—” thrives in the space between the images we project and who we really are.

“Rap S—”

Where: HBO Max

When: Available anytime, new episodes on Thursdays, 6 p.m

Valuation: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under 17)

STREAMING JULY 21 It’s impossible not to root for Issa Rae’s ‘Rap S—’

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