'Rapture': TV Review | SXSW 2018

Inconsistent, but still full of delights for rap fans.
3/30/2018

Netflix's eight-part hip-hop documentary series takes a sometimes revealing look at rappers including Nas, T.I., Rapsody, Logic and 2 Chainz.

Think of Netflix's new eight-part documentary series Rapture, premiering March 30 after its SXSW bow, as Chef's Table for hip-hop heads.

Produced by Sacha Jenkins and the team at Mass Appeal, each episode spends an hour exploring the life of a figure (or in one case a duo) within the current hip-hop landscape. Subjects range from genre legends like Nas and established mainstream standbys like 2 Chainz and T.I. to slow-breaking critical favorites like Rapsody to exploding newer voices like Logic and G-Eazy and A Boogie wit da Hoodie. The New York-based Mass Appeal crew may have focused a little heavily on East Coast figures, but with Bay Area, North Carolina and Atlanta rappers, there's at least some geographical variation. You can sense certain semi-obligatory boxes being checked, making sure there's at least one woman and one white MC, covering several styles, etc.

Now with Chef's Table, even the episodes in which the culinary mastermind isn't all that personable and the restaurant's style isn't to your liking, you still get an hour of gorgeously photographed locations and consummately produced food porn. The Rapture episodes are inconsistent in both quality and in their individual directors and editors' abilities to find and craft a thematic or narrative hook. Of course, most viewers are going to feel OK with sampling five or 10 minutes of a Rapture episode and quitting if the artist or music isn't to their taste, while I plowed through all eight episodes, sometimes with growing disinterest.

It's probably both reductive and largely accurate to say that the series and its directors are at their worst when they're trying to impose a story around a young rapper whose life experiences and body of work don't lend themselves to anything revelatory yet. I watched 54 minutes of celebration of A Boogie wit da Hoodie and came away with no sense of his flow or worldview, only a familiar biographical sketch of a guy who had trouble with the law, found purpose in music and is determined not to forget the rough parks of the Bronx where he was raised — which works great in principle, but borders on meaningless given that he's only had two years of fame in which to never forget. The episode on G-Eazy, in which he travels to Brazil and makes utterly banal observations about hip-hop being a universal language and seems much more interested in advancing himself as a clothing and modeling brand than any lyrical trailblazing, also feels repetitive and shallow. The Logic episode gives the illusion of providing access and exposing some of the "1-800-273-8255" rapper's battles with self-doubt and insecurity, until you realize how much of Logic's success stems from already doing the same thing nonstop on social media.

Watched as a unit, the Logic, G-Eazy and A Boogie wit da Hoodie episodes are illustrative in capturing the changing business models in hip-hop, the role of Twitter, Facebook, SoundCloud, Spotify and mixtapes, and the idea that "albums" are almost afterthoughts. If you're ambivalent on their music, there's no reason to sit through three episodes for an insight you probably already got from watching FX's Atlanta.

Still, I guess there's some rueful amusement in the A Boogie wit da Hoodie episode and its message of "All you need to do to become famous is to want it enough and post your songs online" — if A Boogie's got skills, segment director Marcus A. Clarke hasn't figured out how to capture them — compared to the focus of the Rapsody episode, which is all about the arduous and multi-tiered process she has had to go through to be taken seriously by the industry and its fans. Even after years of nurturing by one of the South's most respected producers, plus collaborations with the likes of Big Daddy Kane and Kendrick Lamar, the endorsement of a slew of hip-hop icons and multiple Grammy nominations, what social media still brings her is trolls tweeting about how she isn't hot enough. This is not an even playing field, which helps make the Rapsody episode feel so very different from all of the other Rapture installments.

It just helps to be able to have time to reflect on your career and your life, which A Boogie wit da Hoodie hasn't had time to do at 22. Then again, Nas released Illmatic when he was 20, so special people can have introspection regardless of age.

The Nas installment, directed by Jenkins, is a standout in part because his fixation on how power means freedom and freedom means being able to help bring up young rappers dovetails with his mentorship of David East, who shares his episode. If you haven't watched Nas' PBS special Live From the Kennedy Center: Classical Hip-Hop, I strongly recommend it as a complement to this episode. Hip-hop is a world in which you can be an elder statesman at 44, and Nas is as good as they get.

I appreciated the T.I. episode, which finds him traveling the country interviewing civil rights figures including Andrew Young and Harry Belafonte, because of how he acknowledges the myriad contradictions in his musical evolution and public persona. I came away from that episode with more respect for T.I. The same was true of the 2 Chainz episode, which captures a particular strange moment in which the artist formerly known as Tity Boi was trying to figure out how to start touring just 10 days after breaking his leg in a four-wheeler accident. Hint: It involves a pink, sparkling wheelchair.

The math-inclined might notice that Rapture is eight episodes long and I've only mentioned seven. Well, there are seven episodes focusing on MCs and one on Just Blaze, a producer known for his work with Jay-Z, Kaye West, Eminem and more. As a token nod to the vast technical side of hip-hop, I almost would have preferred if Mass Appeal skipped producers/engineers entirely in this first go-round and saved them for a second season, but I suspect the goal was to prove that a producer well-known in music circles but perhaps not to a wide audience could support an hour. The answer is, "Of course he can!" The Just Blaze episode is easily the most substantive of the Rapture segments, combining both biographical background details and a magnificent borough-spanning odyssey in which he visits fellow producers such as Swizz Beatz and Havoc in-studio and prods them for fanboy details on how they approach their sonic tapestries. Directed by Gabriel Noble, it's the wonkiest, most informative and best of the Rapture episodes, and I hope a second season spends more time with producers, and brings in at least one Los Angeles rapper. There's a lot of ground to cover, and the first eight Rapture episodes are a promising start.

Premieres: Friday, March 30 (Netflix)

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