Is there anything worse on Netflix right now than David Letterman asking Jay-Z what’s up with the n-word? Sry 2 say but yes: it’s David Letterman asking Jay-Z on the very same interview -- it aired this month on My Next Guest Needs No Introduction -- if “hip-hop is all biographical.” Jay-Z’s jaw works for a second before he says, “No. A lot of guys are just telling stories.” Letterman startles: “Really?”
Uh, yes, really, and the funny thing is that just before Netflix dropped this embarrassment of an episode, it released a whole show about those stories, lovingly crafted by writers, producers and filmmakers who know the story of modern American hip-hop better than most people alive. Even funnier: it’s led by Jay-Z’s one-time bete noire Nas.
Those 1990s MTV hip-hop battles seem kind of silly from this distance, now that Jay-Z has become a sort of music industry Obama (crazy charming, plus the hair is this close to running for president) and Nas has evidently graduated to elder statesman. The ten artists who each get hour-length features on Rapture use their time to enlarge their own myths. Some, like the young Logic (the rapper all the teens you know are mad about) do it through personal vulnerability. Some engage with Black Lives Matter, like T.I., or deconstruct the genre’s sexism, like Rapsody, the only woman MC to feature in this season. And then there’s 2 Chainz, whose episode opens with a long, slow moment in the back of his car, where he lights up, looks the camera in the eye, and asks us if he should be wearing his new Alexander McQueen shoes or the Gucci kicks he’s worn once.
If you watch the second episode first, you come face to face with Nas himself, dream of a million 1990s MTV childhoods. Nas gives Killer Mike, the brilliant rapper from Run The Jewels (dream of a million 2000s Apple Music childhoods), a spot to play an unreleased song called ‘Black Power, White Powder.’
“Every other culture has a funny story for you about how the first generation did some crooked shit to put them where they are,” Mike says by way of explanation. “You got Italian friends, they’ll tell you, ‘Yeah, my uncle was in the mob,’ right. You got a Jewish friend, ‘Yeah, my uncle was --’ you know? You got Southern white friends -- ‘Yeah, grandpa bootlegged.’ We’re the only culture, and I’ve known this from the crack era forward -- if society say our criminals wrong, goddamnit, our criminals wrong. We’ve never been taught that every culture, essentially, because of a capitalist system, you gotta start with some type of crime.”
That’s really the key to Rapture, in which the rappers and showrunners seem to have colluded to allow each episode to take on the rhythm of the artist writing his or her own rhymes. It’s also full of bull, as hip-hop unapologetically is. But that’s kind of what makes it stand out in a field crowded with hip-hop movies and documentaries. (Some of them are objectively cooler than Rapture; take The Defiant Ones, a slick, entertaining four-part series about Dr Dre and his producer, Jimmy Iovine, which also came out on Netflix India this March.)
It’s in deadly earnest, taking viewers into neighbourhoods (let 2 Chainz tell you, heaven help us, what a ‘trap house’ is), filming mushy interviews with parents, getting vox pops from fans waiting to get into concerts. But at no point is any of this interested in giving a viewer a key with which to unlock the genre. It wants, if anything, to re-invest it with mystique and restore its myths -- to tell stories not for biographical reasons, but for epic ones.
Getting there: Watch Rapture on Netflix here.
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