Rap Sh!t, the new HBO Max comedy from Issa Rae, tries to peel back the curtain on making it in hip-hop, where the lyrics would have you think you need a Lambo before you can pick up a microphone. It’s a come-up tale that starts at the bottom, where promoting your music means standing in long lines at the club only to be turned away by an unsympathetic bouncer.
“It feels really good to be a part of something that is based in Florida and really telling a story about real girls, you know?” series star KaMillion tells The Daily Beast.
The real-life rapper plays Mia, a single mom, makeup artist, and all-around hustler who discovers she has a knack for rhymes. Fed up with her unreliable baby daddy LaMont (RJ Cyler) and juggling three jobs, she convinces her friend Shawna (Aida Osman) to start a rap duo, only to realize music is just as unforgiving as any other industry.
KaMillion, 33, knows the struggle.
The Jacksonville-born rapper has been putting out songs for the past eight years, waiting for something to stick. Her music led to sporadic appearances on the reality novela Love & Hip Hop: Miami, but it wasn’t until she got the call for Rap Sh!t that it all felt like it was coming together.
“I’ve had some one-liners here and there, but acting was never something that I’ve been pursuing,” she says. Now? “I’m just ready to be this breakout star that everybody loves,” she laughs.
KaMillion didn’t expect much when she learned about the audition for Rap Sh!t, but a series of personal setbacks inspired her to channel her frustration into an ultimately crucial self-tape.
“I had some personal things going on at the time, which probably helped my delivery,” she says. “I came on camera and I was like, ‘Hi, my name’s KaMillion. I’m Mia and Mia is me,’ and the casting directors said that that stood out to them when I came on screen, so… shout out to life.”
And while KaMillion may put a lot of herself into her role, she says Rap Sh!t has Rae written all over it.
“Issa fucking Rae is the GOAT!” says KaMillion. “This lady was on set every damn day. No excuses. Up when we’re up, and she [had] just got married!”
Like Rae’s Emmy-nominated series Insecure—which wrapped last year after five seasons—the show is deliberate about its target audience; a group of Black friends hungry for something beyond mere survival shifts effortlessly between regional and social media slang with all the intonations and trail-offs of real conversation. And like the Inglewood, California-set Insecure, Rap Sh!t is a love letter to its hometown. Miami Beach hotels and Wynwood bars compete for screen time with its protagonists, who are often filmed in lower-quadrant framing to make room for the ambiance.
“It was fun to not be in Hollywood, but be in Florida doing some Hollywood shit,” says Kamillion, adding that it felt like filming in her “backyard.”
The mostly out-of-town crew, on the other hand, had a hard time adjusting to the Sunshine State’s infamously capricious weather.
“They came in the middle of hurricane season,” she recalls. “It was funny to me. I’m watching everybody set up for scenes, and here comes the rain and we’d miss a day, and I’m just like, ‘Oh shit, they gon’ learn.’”
Just as shooting on location grounds the show in reality, so does the choice to have much of the plot unfold through iPhone screens. Where Insecure had iMessage bubbles pop up on screen every once in a while, Rap Sh!t takes it to the next level. For much of the first episode, characters sound off on Instagram Lives, answer FaceTimes, and react to texts. It comes off clunky at first, but as the season progresses and the transitions get smoother, it leaves you feeling like you stumbled on some wildly entertaining Twitter beef with accompanying receipts. More importantly, it captures where most everyday interaction—especially for, say, aspiring hip-hop stars—plays out.
“Instagram is my storefront,” KaMillion explains. “That’s where I sell all my goods. When I wanna book a show, when I wanna make some more money, I know what to do.”
Rae isn’t the only one whose fingerprints are all over Rap Sh!t. The show could easily double as the unofficial dramatization of the rise of City Girls—the Florida rap duo of Yung Miami and JT—who serve as co-executive producers alongside their label heads, Kevin “Coach K” Lee and Pierre “P” Thomas of influential Atlanta rap exporters Quality Control Music.
In the show, Shawna and Mia officially team up after their freestyle verse about scamming men goes viral. If that sounds familiar, wait until you see how KaMillion plays her role with pitch-perfect loyalty to Yung Miami, faithfully adapting everything from the rapper’s signature closer (“Period,” with her acrylics gliding across the neck for emphasis) to her oft-cited denunciation of small “eight-ounce” bottles adapted from—what else?—a fan-favorite Instagram Live session with Santana, another Miami rapper prominently featured on the show’s soundtrack.
Yung Miami and JT were “very” influential to the show’s main characters, KaMillion says.
“Miami, she’s always been a popping lil’ lit chick, and JT, she was a rapper. With Mia, she was like Miami, she had the popularity. And Shawna, she’s a real MC and she had the bars—JT,” she explains. “Even with Yung Miami having a son, being a young mother, you know, that relates to Mia’s story, so it’s definitely a lot of similarities.”
A major theme of the show is navigating an oversaturated industry where audiences beg for something different but stream more of the same. Shawna, burned by an old collaborator (Jaboukie Young-White) who is now promoting a hyper-sexualized white female rapper, starts off the season hiding behind a mask and dropping conscious bars in front of a puny online audience. She rants against men who complain about sexy female artists while ignoring women who don’t show off their bodies. KaMillion’s character encourages her friend to spice things up, first by taking off her mask and later by trying out more club-friendly topics, leading to their first song, “Seduce & Scheme.”
KaMillion says she understands where Shawna comes from.
“Before I became comfortable with my sexuality and with the promotion of my music, I used to say the same thing,” she says, before dropping some wisdom straight from Mia’s playbook. “Dudes always try to make women feel lesser than by calling them hoes and saying it’s all about sex, but men really do like that.”
You can see the same evolution in KaMillion’s own career. Her first video, for an R&B slow jam titled “Blowed,” is a single-shot affair that features her smoking and kissing a love interest. Her most-watched clip, 2020’s “Womp Womp,” is an ode to rich men and first-class flights with enough twerking close-ups to fill an encyclopedia entry on the topic.
“When I learned to embrace it, I literally went up. You might catch me double-cheeked-up on Instagram.” she says. “I don’t consider it selling out, I just consider it [a] bitch getting smart.”
And with her star power now on the rise thanks to Rap Sh!t, she’s confident the best is yet to come: “The sky’s the limit for me.”