LA Finally Gets Its Love Letter With Issa Rae’s “Insecure”

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HBO

Lying listless on her couch, Insecure’s Issa waits desperately for her (ex-?) boyfriend, Lawrence, to come home. Or call. Or text. Anything. The guilt of having cheated on him — and the shame of having been caught — weighs on her as she leaves countless unanswered voicemails.

As the intractability of Lawrence’s absence and anger sinks in, a voice begins to sing above gentle chords. “Can I tell you a secret?” it asks, high and angelic. “My wings are made of plastic.”

As the scene moves from Issa staring speechless at the bathroom mirror where she once found her greatest creative freedom to an eerily beautiful shot of the Los Angeles landscape, the final line of the chorus reverberates: “…and so am I.”

The song, Moses Sumney’s “Plastic,” opens the finale of HBO’s eight-episode series and gives voice to the self-made purgatory of Insecure’s protagonist. A musical rendering of her newly fresh vulnerability, it is a painful, gorgeous track. “Plastic” does the work of exposing both Issa’s sadness and her fragility. It evokes sympathy at a moment when Issa’s character may very well not deserve it.

But taken alongside the rest of Insecure’s soundtrack, “Plastic” is as much a perfect encapsulation of the show’s self-awareness and hyper-thoughtfulness as it is a simple background track to Issa’s pain. By curating tracks that both reflect and enhance the emotional depth Insecure’s characters convey, the show offers a kaleidoscopic, immersive experience that feels tailor-made for its diverse black viewership and introduces new artists and genres to viewers who may not otherwise be familiar. And a remarkable number of those artists are (black) women; their chorus buttresses the pacing and plot of a show whose commitment to depicting black women with their own voices is rare even in 2016. That Insecure’s sonic accompaniment sticks with viewers long after the show’s credits roll is a testament to the collectivity of Rae’s vision: Black female artists like Kari Faux, Kamaiyah, and Junglepussy get their shine alongside Rae — and Insecure is stronger for it.

For creator Issa Rae, who also plays her protagonist namesake, the path to getting a scripted series on television was long and unorthodox, marred by much of the same gatekeeping that systemically hampers black Hollywood creators. She first gained national attention with her YouTube series The Misadventures Of Awkward Black Girl in 2011, and the process of getting Insecure a show that depicts but does not explain the lives of black women to television was hardly linear. But now that it’s here, with Rae and Larry Wilmore as co-producers, Insecure manages to follow the lives of Issa (played by Rae), her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji), and a host of primarily black characters without making sweeping statements about the state of capital-B Blackness. The show, which doesn’t employ the high-stakes drama familiar to Shonda Rhimes viewers, is rare in its simplicity: Few shows since Mara Brock Akil’s early aughts Girlfriends have captured the “boring” moments of black women’s lives.

Though Issa Rae may “hate LA dudes,” she captures the city’s essence with a tender, singular beauty.

Insecure is not, however, alone in its status as an auteur show that elevates a city, in this case Los Angeles, to the role of character. But while Atlanta peppers primarily Southern music into the background of its male leads’ lives and Master of None’s Father John Misty references alone are peak Williamsburg, Insecure employs its soundtrack to more profound effect: The music serves to further shape the show’s unmistakably LA mood. Rolling views of the ocean and Hollywood Hills, frank dialogue about and depictions of rapidly gentrifying black neighborhoods like Baldwin Hills, and notably West Coast funk influences are woven throughout the series. The cumulative effect is as soothing and laid-back as (black) LA itself, even as Issa’s life descends into conflict. The city’s sprawl becomes a playground for both Insecure’s characters and its soundtrack’s artists, not a coincidence but an asset to the story itself. And though Rae may “hate LA dudes,” she captures the city’s essence with a tender, singular beauty.

And with Solange Knowles as music consultant, the show has tapped into the screens and Spotify streams of a passionate, multi-platform audience. The idea to work with Knowles first came from director Melina Matsoukas, and Rae told Vox she was awestricken at the thought: “I was like, ‘Bitch, call her right now.’” Knowles’ influence radiates throughout each episode. Want to relive the scene where Lawrence first confronts Issa about her cheating? Head to Episode 7’s playlist and skip to “Timmy’s Prayer,” the sumptuous track from Sampha, who features on Solange’s September album, A Seat at the Table. Want to replay the ~girl power vibes~ when Issa brings snacks to Molly’s place and they make up after the infamous “Broken Pussy” incident? Head back to Episode 1, where Junglepussy’s “Bling Bling” will make you forget men even exist.

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Saint Heron / Via saintheron-blog.tumblr.com

Issa’s life isn’t all cheating confessions and unanswered texts, so naturally the soundtrack features more than gutting ballads and nearly hymnal odes from men like Sumney and Sampha. One of the soundtrack’s breakout artists is Kamaiyah, a 24-year-old rapper from Oakland whose music is is bold and confident, full of West Coast funk and fun. Two tracks off her debut mixtape A Good Night in the Ghetto, “Break You Down” and “Niggas,” appear in the series finale; the former plays during a pivotal moment for Lawrence, but the latter is all about the ladies.

“Niggas” plays as Molly strips for the man she brought back from a bar during a trip the girls had taken to Malibu to celebrate their friend Kelli’s birthday. “He said that he wanna be my boyfriend, but he can’t tie me down / ‘Cause I don’t wanna be his girlfriend, at least not right now,” Kamaiyah raps before launching into the song’s cocky refrain: “I got niggas, I got niggas, I got niggas / Don’t have to understand it, but this is how I live it.” The song and scene both come immediately after Issa admonishes Molly for flirting with the man and Molly responds, hurt and snarky, by reminding Issa of the comment she’d made about Molly being unable to keep a man. When she’d been on a date with a guy she genuinely liked in Episode 4, Molly was soundtracked by “Girl,” the warm, sultry song from Ego Death, The Internet’s hazy 2015 album. But in the finale, “Niggas” adds a gritty new layer to the display of Molly’s promiscuity, underscoring both her independence and her desire to avoid further analyzing her love life.

Kamaiyah’s sound is definitively West Coast, and she is as much a descendant of Tupac as she is of Missy Elliott or Nicki Minaj. Just as Insecure’s cinematography is a visual love letter to Black LA (specifically South LA, Inglewood, and Baldwin Hills), its soundtrack highlights the distinctly West Coast sensibilities of artists like Kamaiyah, Vince Staples, and Ty Dolla $ign, who even makes a quick cameo in Episode 4. Kari Faux, the Arkansas-born rapper whose debut album, Lost En Los Angeles, was inspired directly by her time in the city, appears in three different episodes’ playlists. Most notably, her song in Episode 8, “Top Down,” was created specifically for Insecure. “I made a song about driving top down on the freeway, having a good time, and being a star,” Faux told Genius. “Top Down” plays as Issa and Molly sit in awkward tension in the backseat of the car en route to Malibu. Kelli (Natasha Rothwell) and Tiffany (Amanda Seales) dance obliviously up front, and the single channels both celebration and uncertainty: “Shine bright like a star so come valet my car / Don’t get paid till next week but I’mma buy out the bar.”

Throughout Insecure’s soundtrack, Rae and Knowles toss in a handful of other songs Rae might have considered for her Ratchetpiece Theater series. There’s Trap Beckham’s “Birthday Bitch” right before “Wipe Me Down” in Episode 8 and Problem’s “D2B” (or “Dick 2 Bomb”) and TT the Artist’s “Thug It Out” in Episode 5. All the songs come at moments of celebration (a birthday or the promise of “dick appointment”) or strife (a mortifying moment at work), when the women in the show need the most energy to keep them going. When they dance at the club in Malibu, it’s “Wipe Me Down” that gets them most lit. An entire scene is devoted to their commitment to their semi-choreographed moves to the track as Boosie deserves, of course.

And the Grown ‘N’ Sexy jams get their fair share of love too. Whether it’s D’Angelo, Raphael Saadiq, or Leon Haywood, auntie-approved crooners show up in the soundtrack like spritzes of Chanel No. 5: rare but important. Together with a healthy serving of new-school R&B from the likes of Frank Ocean and KING, the auntie jams give the show a decidedly adult feel: Rae may have been an awkward black girl in her web series, but Insecure’s Issa is a grown-ass woman. LA is her world, and Insecure paints it with music that captures the city’s mood. Issa’s man might not be coming back, but the ride down PCH (never Pacific Coast Highway, always PCH) to see him is her home, too. So pass her the aux cord and let her exhale.

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