Throughout the first season of HBO's Insecure, Issa Rae’s character Issa has a way of expressing her emotions by rapping in the mirror. Frustration and elation, confidence and irritation—no matter the feeling, she is able to exhale through rhyme. Her character isn’t pursuing a career in music, she has no ambitions to be the biggest rapper in the world, and her rhymes aren't good enough to help her snag a Source Award—she's simply another creative soul using the artform to get through her day-to-day.
Watching a young black woman so enriched by rap music and hip-hop culture on my television screen was refreshing as I binged through episodes during the holiday season. The way she is able to express herself represents a personal relationship with rapping that doesn’t leave her bathroom, that doesn’t exist outside the privacy of her own world. It's rapping you can't take serious but is no different than amateur singers who hit their struggle high notes while in the shower. Not everyone is meant for superstardom, some art is simply for the woman in the mirror. It’s only one rare, hilarious moment where Issa takes her rapping to the stage, and the performance of “Broken Pussy” would’ve easily been a viral masterpiece in this age of social media.
HBO’s Insecure has been applauded and acclaimed since its debut episode aired in October of 2016. Creator Issa Rae gave the world an authentic look into the lives of black women and black men in our current modern era. Issa toldRolling Stone that her goal was to "Tell the black female millennial story," a mission she accomplished with humor and grace. Insecure successfully touches on black women working within mostly-white work environments while also shedding light on love, relationships, insecurities, self-esteem, mental health and a plethora of other human nuances that aren’t always captured through a realistic lens, especially when the focus is on mostly the black community.
Each and every character is dipped in realism, it’s easy to gravitate toward this slice of life comedy because it reflects people we see in ourselves, traits we see in others. What impressed me most is how the music is used to score their lives—a modern soundtrack for modern times. The first song you hear is Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” and the series continues to be drenched in colors of R&B, rap and soul music.
Insecure is a series where you can hear Kali Uchis and Kari Faux, The Internet and Blood Orange, GoldLink and Drake, Missy Elliott and TT The Artist—a perfect balance of old and new, famous and underground. There’s a scene where Issa and her boyfriend Lawrence are entranced in a heated argument, and as the credits role Sampha’s “Timmy’s Prayer” eases in perfectly. It’s a song you don’t expect, by a voice that hasn’t fully crossed over, but it fits the scene as if Sampha’s words were tailored for their collapsing union. Frank Ocean’s “Pink + White” plays while Issa and Lawrence lay in bed, Boosie’s “Wipe Me Down” erupts in the club, Abra’s “I Guess” after Kelly and Molly leave the party with their young tenderonis. All these little moments paired with the perfect music selections leaves them etched into your mind; to hear them now is to relive those scenes.
Throughout the episodes, music adds to the viewing experience, done in a way where it connects to the very mood you’re witnessing. In our ordinary lives, the records we play aren't always the biggest hits or from the most renowned artists, and Insecure does an excellent job of providing a similar world for their characters, a world where the music speaks from below the underground and above the mainstream.
I believe the hip-hop Gods orchestrated HBO’s Insecure and FX’s Atlanta, which both aired during the fall season. Only a month separates their debuts, but both series strongly represented black lives, and are scored by black music. Insecure is rooted in absolute realism, while Atlanta has a touch of surrealism—capturing just how weird our world can be at times. Earn, Darius and Paperboy don’t mirror the lives of Issa, Molly and Lawrence, but both series give a unique observation into a slice of their black experiences.
Music plays a major role in Atlanta, not just because the series focuses on an up-and-coming rapper, but simply because of the way music plays a role in the city of Atlanta. Insecure, a series shot in California, opened with Kendrick's "Alright," while Atlanta’s opening scene is paired with the voice of OJ da Juiceman. OJ isn’t Atlanta’s best rapper, he is far from the most notable, but he is very much the product of the city, and an early voice of rap’s trap era. Both series are opened by voices that people relate to their settings, and from the very beginning you trust how these stories will represent these places and people.
FX's Atlanta stayed true to the city in various ways—Crime Mob’s ”Knuck If You Buck” plays while Paperboy popped bottles in the club, Makonnen can be heard in "Gold Rush" as Earn quizzes a stripper about the whereabouts of his jacket, and the final episode closes to the sweet sounds of OutKast's “Elevators.” Just like Insecure, Atlanta has scenes where the music and what's occurring coexist in such perfection you simply can't forget them—Earn performing Nelly's "Ride Wit Me" in the Uber, Darius and Paperboy singing “Encore” by Cheryl Lynn the way best friends should, and who can forget Funkadelic's "Hit It and Quit It" capturing ears as Van attempts to acquire clean piss from dirty diapers to pass a drug test.
Doe B, Kodak Black, Rich The Kid, Xavier Wulf, Nappy Roots—all can be heard buried throughout the first season’s soundtrack. Not only did Donald Glover and company give rap a place to be heard, but also for rappers to be seen—Migos, Lloyd, Bankroll PJ, and Vine sensation Nileseyy Niles all appear in cameo roles. It’s also worth noting Ty Dolla $ign and the classic man Jidenna both appear briefly during the first season of Insecure. In an age where representation matters, both Atlanta and Insecure are giving hip-hop an avenue to be seen, heard and appreciated on television.
"Even with its relative obscurity and unobtrusive placement, the soundtrack of 'Atlanta' is crucial to its next-level specificity, regional intimacy and obsession with atmosphere. The expert, bespoke musical curation — there is no recurring theme song, and no composer whose score can serve as a shortcut to emotion — was a major focus for the show’s architects, most of whom share a background that has nothing to do with television. Whereas most shows would leave the song choices to the dedicated music department, on 'Atlanta,' everyone was qualified. Led by Mr. Glover, the show’s star and creator who also raps as Childish Gambino, the creative team responsible for the hyper-accurate local vibe includes multiple other musicians and managers from Mr. Glover’s inner circle, including his brother, Stephen, a writer and rapper. Also part of the mix is the director Hiro Murai, who was at the helm for most of the first season after working primarily on music videos. 'That’s what brought us all together in the first place — music,' said Jamal Olori, an 'Atlanta' staff writer and sometime rapper known as Swank. 'We all understood that power and knew we could put certain feelings and energies inside these episodes.'” - In ‘Atlanta,’ a Soundtrack That Subtly Whispers Its Locale
Issa Rae enlisted Solange as her music consultant and Raphael Saadiq as the series composer—two brilliant, creative minds who are perfect in helping to bring an authentic sound to such an authentic show. Donald Glover’s creative team is also passionate about exhibiting music from both the known and unknown. Music plays such a pivotal role in Atlanta’s history, it’s been over 20 years since Andre proclaimed the South had something to say, and the FX series only continues to boost up voices.
Two critically acclaimed series tied to both black music and black culture was a huge win for hip-hop in 2016. Rap has made strides in becoming a heavy voice on late night television, but infiltrating both FX and HBO introduces the music to an even wider audience. Hamilton took over broadway, The Getdown and Hip-Hop Evolution made waves on Netflix, and even if I disagree with the series direction, Empire is still going strong―hip-hop is starting to have a voice in avenues where it was once very quiet. The progress isn't always smooth, but it's beautiful to witness.
"I think about artists like Drake who I really love and can pinpoint albums that reflect certain times in my life," Rae admits. "But his music has literally been a soundtrack to some of the best moments in my life. I wanted to make sure the artists were as diversely reflected as possible and that anybody could play this soundtrack and be like 'Oh my gosh, this is the soundtrack to my life, too!'" - 'Insecure' Creator Issa Rae on Drake's Influence, Maintaining 'Awkward'-Ness
Rap music has been my high school sweetheart, my college darling, and my life partner since being brought together when my ears were hungry for a sound that was special, poetic and raw. I start my every day and end my every night with some form of rap and hip-hop, a cycle that’s been ongoing for over a decade. The music and culture have brought me to soaring heights and saved me from falling into frustrating bottoms. You take away the music, you remove the culture from this planet, and I’d be a completely different person—a completely different man. Take away the music from Insecure or Atlanta, and both series lose some of the very life that makes them so relatable.
Music is more than just background noise, it is the very rhythm that we live by, the very rhythm that both shows move to. A rhythm that the world needs to witness as a reminder of how rap and hip-hop play a role in our everyday, ordinary lives.
Cheers to the forthcoming second seasons that I believe will only continue to make us proud.
By Yoh, aka #TeamLawrence aka @Yoh31.