As befits its two rising rap artists who are constantly rethinking and remaking themselves in pursuit of success, “Rap Sh!t” Season 2 has a whole new look. The Max series created by Issa Rae and staring Aida Osman and KaMillion as Shawna and Mia spent its first season being as inventive as its characters, emphasizing the reels, FaceTimes, and social media chaos that they leverage to secure interest (if not paydays) from the music industry establishment. Season 2 doesn’t expand so much as explode the visual scope of the series, focusing on Shawna and Mia’s offline lives.
“We’re peeling back the layers, and we’re going deeper and we’re kind of living with these characters in real time a little more,” showrunner Syreeta Singleton told IndieWire. “So I feel like there was a lot of flexibility and freedom to kind of create a new look.”
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But “Rap Sh!t” doesn’t just trade in Season 1’s lo-fi footprint for more reverse two-shots. The show cannily puts pressure on its heroines through lighting and set design. The Max comedy simultaneously goes as big with color and contrast as Shawna and Mia’s ambitions while trapping them in claustrophobic sets, whether those happen to be sh!tbox motels or clubs filled with people who don’t rate Shawna and Mia as serious players in the rap game.
Series creator Issa Rae said that the conceit of going on tour together naturally pushed Shawna and Mia closer than either of them would necessarily choose and freed both the writing and production teams. “Last season we had to work within this scope of what would they share via social media. How would that work with the story?” Rae told IndieWire. “This was an opportunity to really delve into their lives and have them get to know each other on a more personal level, on a more intimate level.”
This approach is delightfully exemplified in the tour bus that whisks Shawna and Mia away from Miami. Shawna and Mia choose glam-colored lighting that makes them look like the rap stars they aspire to be, but also drowns out any sense of flow and makes them look as pressed up against the space as a virtual Zoom background. This is only exacerbated by tension, either with each other, their manager (Jonica Booth), or their Littlefinger-esque promoter Francois (Jaboukie Young-White), to say nothing of the endlessly awful rap stars Reina (Kat Cunning) and Lord AK (Jacob Gibson).
“Obviously we have our FaceTimes and we want to have characters in different places doing different things but [still] be able to connect and peer into each other’s lives in different ways,” Singleton said. “We have certain ways that we shoot things so that they time out correctly. It’s actually sometimes a lot more technical than you may think. At the same time, we gave the directors a lot of freedom because we knew we wanted to create something that didn’t look just like Season 1.”
The “Rap Sh!t” team pulls off a triple-lutz with the bus and elsewhere through Shawna and Mia’s early experiences on tour: There’s a smooth, sophisticated, and elevated look to the series as it spends more time with the characters, in-frame tension that simmers and simmers, and a clear visual link to the stages and social media platforms that Shawna and Mia use to get their feet fully in the door.
“A major discussion for Syreeta and I going into Season 2 [was] what we wanted to elevate behind-the-scenes just in terms of production quality, how we wanted to use our resources for directors, for costumes, for set design,” Rae said.
In terms of the tour bus, Singleton said that they committed to shooting in an actual bus to get the tightness and enforced intimacy. “We did build the spaces that were impossible to get in, like the bathroom and the bunk beds. But other than that, we were on the tour bus, and we had it expand when you park it so that there’s a little more space to navigate,” Singleton said. “But it was tight.”
“That was part of the freedom of it, too,” Rae said. “Usually when you’re rehearsing a scene or when you’re shooting, there’s so many people around. [But the actual bus provided] the intimate setting when we were actually shooting practically, and it just feels cramped like a real tour bus. That was the point, [that] these girls are under so much pressure and they’re in such uncomfortable situations.”
But Singleton and the “Rap Sh!t” team get to have a more traditional television approach and keep their vertical video fun, too. Instead of being the main visual engine of the show, Mia and Shawna’s social media comes in like a breath of air or an unexpected punch to the gut, depending. Either way, “When we used [our social media scenes] this time, we used it for moments that would be viral,” Singleton said.
Singleton and her team engineered the show’s old visual aesthetic to hold moments of forward momentum or betrayal, and the heightened content and visual presentation make those scenes feel as dramatic, hilarious, and whiplash-inducing as being terminally online often does. It’s also, according to Singleton, at the heart of how the show challenges the characters and gets them to grow.
“Receiving that almost instant feedback about what you’re doing and whether or not you missed the mark, that’s a really big thing for us. And because the girls are measuring themselves so, so often by what other people are saying, I think the use of social media was really used specifically for that,” Singleton said.
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