For as long as hip-hop has been around, female MCs have been on the front lines as tastemakers, trendsetters, and all-around heroes. It's been a thankless task, and it hasn't gotten any easier — not even as women in hip-hop are more prominent than ever.
Issa Rae's Rap Sh!t came through at a time when Black women were still fighting for visibility and respect in the music industry. As it returns for a second season on Max, hip-hop is celebrating its 50th trip around the sun — but the culture is still no closer to addressing the misogynoir that has kept its most valuable players on the sidelines. The "first ladies" of hip-hop are all but forgotten fixtures of the movement: the most frequently erased, the least protected. The same industry that turned its back on Dee Barnes — a journalist and rapper who was assaulted by Dr. Dre in 1991, and subsequently blacklisted — is the same one that forces icons like Megan Thee Stallion to prove they've been assaulted at all. Marginal strides have been made, but even 50 years on, Black women are still the only ones consistently showing up for Black women.
While this isn't Rap Sh!t's outright thesis, it is a theme baked into the ethos of the series. Rae's follow-up to Insecure, showrun by Insecure alum Syreeta Singleton, follows the meteoric rise of impromptu rap duo Shawna (comedian Aida Osman) and Mia (real-life rapper KaMillion). Their come-up suffered plenty of setbacks in Season 1 — not just relationship drama for Mia, but a federal investigation that could potentially send Shawna to jail. Paired with some near-perpetual creative disconnect, our heroines have their work cut out for them as Rap Sh!t returns for Season 2.
When we catch up with Shawna, Mia, and their self-appointed manager Chastity (Jonica Booth), they're gearing up to tour with Shawna's erstwhile producer Francois Boom (Jaboukie Young-White) and his current meal ticket, Reina Reign (Kat Cunning). Reina herself is the supporting act for true tour headliner Lord AK (One Piece's Jacob Romero), but this gig wouldn't be possible without her… and neither Shawna nor Mia is allowed to forget that. The duo scored a feature on "Tongue," Reina's viral hit that likens sex to the addictive properties of crack — a totally harmless thing for a white woman to rap about — and each night of the tour sees them trotted out to provide backup for it.
Adding insult to injury is the assumption that our hustlers will essentially be working for free. It's not exactly on brand for a group whose inaugural anthem, "Seduce & Scheme," established their penchant for getting paid above all. But Francois insists that this is the first step to recording an EP and eventually getting signed to a record label. Shawna, hungry for credibility, is willing to suffer for the art, at least. "That's why it's called being a starving artist!" she insists early in the season's first episode.
"I ain't finna starve," Mia quips without missing a beat. She'll find plenty of ways to finesse this tour for her gain, reminding us all why she's Rap Sh!t's not-so-secret MVP.
Despite the growing rift between Shawna and Mia, the tour does actually end up opening doors for our unlikely duo. Reina and Francois inadvertently put Shawna and Mia on the fast track to Hollywood, as Rap Sh!t abandons place-specific South Florida tales for a more general exploration of the music industry's inner workings. The series has always been critical of the rap scene, especially in a post-Me Too landscape — but the more Shawna and Mia climb the ladder and rub shoulders with artists of increasingly higher pedigrees, the more they grate against the misogyny and racism that keeps the industry running.
Shawna, admittedly, struggles the most in adapting to this new world. While Osman's performance still leaves a bit to be desired, she's a lot easier to root for in Season 2. Shawna's perpetual fight against the male gaze has left her fractured and frazzled; though she's always been outspoken, social media has also been her shield. The consequences of speaking out now, without the affirmation of an audience, feel more tangible than ever. There are no screens protecting her from the violence and humiliation of such a male-dominated industry, no followers around to back her up. Every glib comment against The Patriarchy could tank her career before it's even begun — and not even Mia, arguably more accustomed to moving in male-dominated spaces, has the antidote this time.
So many of the hustlers in Rap Sh!t walk a dangerous tightrope, but Mia is juggling more than most. Relationship drama takes center stage for her in Season 2: There's a loose love triangle with baby daddy Lamont (RJ Cyler) and Cash (Derrius Logan), the rapper whose love language is synonymous with his stage name — but the addition of a few new players keeps it from feeling too contrived. For every name Mia adds to her roster, Rap Sh!t gets deeper into traditional screwball antics in the vein of Girlfriends or Sex in the City. There is still an element of danger here, but it can also be a lot of fun, especially when Shawna and Chastity have no choice but to help Mia navigate her love life.
The friction between this trio is more evident than ever, but the series still shines the most when it's Shawna, Mia, and Chastity against the world. Rap Sh!t is at its best when they acknowledge their shared hustle and rally together against those who would hustle them in turn. Their evolving rapport makes Season 2 all the stronger, and it goes a long way in selling the series' riskiest gimmick.
Rap Sh!t Season 1 had one foot in reality, while the other was firmly set within social media. We got to know characters through simulated highlights on Instagram, FaceTime calls, and OnlyFans streams. While it did establish the latent narcissism and screen dependence in our heroes' lives, it wasn't always effective. Fortunately, there's a bit less of that in Season 2. FaceTime calls are still a viable tool, especially in connecting Shawna with Maurice (Daniel Augustin), her coworker and former partner in crime, who's bearing the brunt of the ongoing fraud case back home. The world of the series is getting bigger all the time, but by becoming less screen dependent itself, the show actually manages to hone in on the intimacy that its first season lacked.
Some of that comes with the addition of new players: the introduction of Lord AK, a rapper who hides his mental health issues behind a smile and a hype beat, allows the series to dig into the casualties of Black male fragility. Black men struggle with mental illness at disproportionate levels, yet Black women are still somehow left holding the bag — a theme that Rae & Co. explored in Insecure and are wisely circling back to here.
Key scene-stealers also get much more time to shine this time around. Young-White's Francois, a hilarious, if minor, presence in Season 1, is fully unleashed in Season 2. He's all the way tapped into his role as the overly eager executive, equal parts icy and obtuse. His catty energy clashes brilliantly with Chastity's own desire to be top dog. Thanks to her — and at great expense to her own enterprise — Shawna and Mia have come a long way. But the higher they go, the more doors are closed to Chastity, and the more she locks horns with Francois.
As in Season 1, Booth is Rap Sh!t's secret weapon. She demonstrates incredible depth as Chastity, though the series is still struggling to make room for her double life. As a reluctant sex work wrangler, Chastity provides a window into the sex industry in Miami — a world that the series is adamant on featuring — but long-simmering turf wars and squabbles between her girls often take attention away from other subplots developing this season. If anything, it's indicative of a developing issue in Season 2: Rap Sh!t is determined to feature the hidden hierarchies of Miami alongside the glitz and debauchery of Hollywood. In some ways, the juxtaposition does work (you can take the girls out of the city, but they are, in fact, still city girls), but some subplots carried over from Season 1 can also distract from Shawna and Mia's come-up.
With the bulk of Rap Sh!t's other flaws largely ironed out, however, one could easily overlook those that remain. The series went through some growing pains in Season 1, not unlike its central duo, but it came out stronger on the other side. Shawna and Mia remain the series' focal point, and it's still complete magic whenever they do get on the same page. They may be going through it, but they're still able to funnel their rage into their music — and whenever they're able to unleash it in an impromptu freestyle or new song, it's impossible to deny their chemistry. Whatever their differences, Shawna and Mia are stronger together. It's always gratifying to watch them inch closer to that realization, especially in the face of so much disrespect elsewhere.
Art reflects real life in Rap Sh!t — Rae and Singleton are loosely dramatizing the lives of femcees like City Girls, who serve as producers — but there has never been anything like this series before. It's come at the perfect time culturally and is in seamless conversation with the strides that female rappers have been making in the real world. The glow-up is real in Season 2, and there's still much more room for Rap Sh!t to grow.
Premieres: Two episodes premiere on Thursday, Nov. 9 on Max, followed by new episodes weekly
Who's in it: Aida Osman, KaMillion, Jonica Booth, Jaboukie Young-White, Kat Cunning, RJ Cyler, and Daniel Augustin
Who's behind it: Syreeta Singleton (Insecure) as showrunner; Issa Rae, Young Miami, and JT of City Girls as producers
For fans of: Insecure, tight-knit dramedies, hot girls doing hot sh--
How many episodes we watched: 6 of 8