Los Angeles Times

Funny, sexy. But not a smash hit

Issa Rae’s new HBO Max series at times reflects the male gaze it intends to critique.

- LORRAINE ALI TELEVISION CRITIC

Class stratifica­tion, breaking into the music biz, single motherhood and social media obsession are just some of themes explored in Issa Rae’s new HBO Max series “Rap S—.” The vibrant half-hour comedy layers flashy pop-culture trimmings atop meaningful personal journeys as it follows estranged high school friends Shawna (Aida Osman) and Mia (KaMillion) when they reconnect in their 20s and form an unlikely rap duo.

The series, which premiered two of eight episodes Thursday, is Rae’s first major project following “Insecure,” her groundbrea­king HBO show about a group of Black girlfriend­s making their way in career-driven Los Angeles. “Rap S—” keeps the focus on Black characters but moves the action to a rarely seen slice of Miami, building its story around a less-affluent cluster of acquaintan­ces who are loosely connected by their shared history, reunited by music and reliant on each other to do what’s needed to pay the rent.

The chemistry among the crew is immediatel­y palpable thanks to standout performanc­es by Osman, KaMillion and Jonica Booth, who portrays hustler Chastity. The latter is the self-proclaimed Duke of Miami, an aspiring music manager who makes a living connecting independen­t sex workers with johns. Call her a kinder, gentler pimp (more on this later).

In the six episodes available for review, the cast of characters document the fabulous aspects of their lives via Instagram posts, videos and live feeds. Viewers of the show become de facto followers, and it’s through Shawna and Mia’s phone apps that much of “Rap S—” is filtered. Despite the splashy overlay of floating emoji, “recording” icons and a banging soundtrack (rappers Yung Miami and JT of City Girls are credited as executive producers), the character’s authentici­ty, struggle and vulnerabil­ity drive this series, which has “Insecure” writer Syreeta Singleton as showrunner.

Heading up a law firm is not in any of these women’s futures. Escaping poverty and dead-end service jobs is the goal and making music is the way out. It’s impossible not to root for them as they face a world of limited opportunit­ies yet manage to make the uphill battles funny, sexy and moving.

Shawna had success two years ago when her socialmind­ed tracks went viral, but she’s lost momentum and is now working as a hotel concierge in a beachside tourist trap. Her coworker Maurice (Daniel Augustin) has a side hustle running credit card scams, and Shawna gets involved. Mia is a single mom, amateur makeup artist and OnlyFans cam girl who peddles porn to make a living. Baby daddy Lamont (RJ Cyler) is there, sometimes, when he’s not in the studio cutting his own tracks. The Duke of Miami drives a vintage Cadillac convertibl­e and appears to be living large, an illusion that’s driven her financial situation to the brink.

Shawna correspond­s with her long-distance boyfriend Cliff (Devon Terrell), who is in New York studying law, but they’re growing apart. The wedge is evidenced by his condescend­ing attitude toward her reunion with Mia and her move away from “meaningful” lyrics to clubminded fare. The tension eventually spills out onto social media.

Deeper questions about how these young women view their sexuality and self-worth saturates “Rap S—.” Shawna has resisted the sexually explicit approach of her female artist peers; she rejected the suggestion of her former male manager, Francois (Jaboukie Young-White), to twerk her way into the spotlight like his other artists, and her career suffered. Shawna reacted 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 begins to see subjugatio­n in a different light.

Still, the male gaze is often the vantage point in this series when the camera drops in on 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 a facilitato­r of work for self-possessed women in a marginal trade an improvemen­t? It’s hard to say, since the Duke’s motivation­s, or even feelings about her operation, aren’t explored. It’s an aspect of “Rap S—” that’s muddled at the start, though answers may emerge in the last two episodes. Maybe not. Life offline is never clear-cut or defined, and “Rap S—” thrives in the space in between the images we project and who we really are.

 ?? Alicia Vera HBO Max ?? ACTORS Jonica Booth, left, and KaMillion in Issa Rae’s “Rap S—” on HBO Max.
Alicia Vera HBO Max ACTORS Jonica Booth, left, and KaMillion in Issa Rae’s “Rap S—” on HBO Max.
 ?? Alicia Vera HBO Max ?? “RAP S—” features Daniel Augustin as Maurice, left, and Aida Osman as Shawna, an aspiring rapper.
Alicia Vera HBO Max “RAP S—” features Daniel Augustin as Maurice, left, and Aida Osman as Shawna, an aspiring rapper.

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