A documentary’s goal is dynamic storytelling. Music documentaries such as Hip-Hop Evolution, Fight the Power, and Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy have previously achieved this goal, prompting audiences to ask more probing questions. RapCaviar Presents, a docuseries on Spotify, achieves this by going beyond the surface-level analysis of rap as just a youth genre and examining it as a deep reflection of power, progress, and how Black artists are still frequently left in the dust.
For the artists featured in the series, there is a clear formula: it centres on a societal issue and humanises the artist experiencing it, whether it is body shaming for Coi Leray or the importance of mental health advocacy for Polo G. The production, led by executive producer Karam Gill and showrunner Steve Rivo, clearly includes strong moments of research and analysis that get to the heart of each artist’s magic. That approach is deliberate. Carl Chery, Spotify’s head of urban music and the series’ creative director, wrote in a statement released ahead of the show’s premiere that their goal was to use “hip-hop as a vehicle to examine society.” The series works as a quick look under a microscope at the limitations of expression that Black rap artists face in every aspect of their lives, both episodically and as a whole.
Hulu and Spotify’s latest six-episode miniseries, released on March 30 to much fanfare, is based on Spotify’s top-performing playlist “RapCaviar” and depicts the show’s and genre’s stars diving into the deep end. Tyler, the Creator discusses how he broadened the definitions of what it means to be a male rap star in the music industry. The City Girls discuss their power in refusing to care about the misogyny of rap’s double standard. Roddy Ricch discusses his struggle to continue building himself in the face of internet bullying. The artist profiles conclude with Polo G discussing his natural ability to tell stories through rap and poetry in the chaos of losing friends as a youth in Chicago, among other things.
The series feels like a solid first step towards breaking down the fourth wall between artist and consumer as the Spotify team moves closer to more progressive storytelling. Using the voices of journalists, cultural critics, and artists’ teams, the series gains a much-needed third voice, allowing the viewer to see inside and outside of the celebrity world, shedding light on the isolation and criticism that every artist faces. The show’s creators argue that developing long-term relationships with artists is the best way to foster deep trust and support for artists who are used to having their stories manipulated and misunderstood. Brooklyn benefits from the expertise of writers such as Danyel Smith.
“I’m constantly on the move. I just leave. “I don’t know what fear is,” Tyler, the Creator declares at the start of his RapCaviar episode. He shines brightest as a fully realised figure with varying sides of his personality and views on how the stigma of the hypermasculine rapper impedes the idea of rap stardom. The episode establishes the type of industry Tyler entered, beginning with Odd Future and demonstrating how the group’s antics began to overshadow the music. It’s a fantastic execution. Tyler is finally able to tell his story without being understood by hip-hop media that relies on the very stereotypes that the show highlights.
Tyler, the Creator is taken seriously in the episode as a multi-hyphenate artist who has grown up in the public eye but has not allowed the vacuum of celebrity to take away his internal voice. Tyler has evolved in front of our eyes because he looked inward to determine his worth as an artist and public thinker. “It’s okay to say ‘fuck all that’ and go your own way,” he says. If you grew up on Tumblr or the internet, you witnessed the rise of OFWGKTA in real time. Tyler, now a Grammy award-winning artist, and the legion of brilliant minds of Odd Future are finally taken seriously in this episode.
At its weakest, the RapCaviar series feels constrained by the need to be marketable and easily consumed. The Roddy Rich episode, where the conceptual theme focuses on online bullying, fails to address how online culture is a deep reflection of who the world considers expendable. However, the production is not entirely to blame, as Roddy Rich boasts about keeping his distance from the mainstream for his own well-being. As a result, we get an episode that revolves around the same big questions but never reaches a conclusion. Without asking the audience to consider how and why internet culture (specifically Twitter and stan culture) has such an impact on them.
“Rappers could fuck around and tell Americans to not pay taxes… That’s what they’re scared of. They aren’t scared of you shooting each other in the street.”
On the other hand, the series shines brightest in its “Rhyme and Punishment” episode, where breaking free from the confines of a single subject reveals the production company’s strengths. We get an interview-focused look at the history of policing black music by speaking to the political, social, and industry conditions of Black artistry—specifically in the cases of the ongoing YSL trial and Bobby Shmurda’s incarceration. It reminds the viewer that nothing under the sun of harmful systems is new or spectacular, and it awakens young people to the fact that rap stars are not above the law in a legal system that treats all Black people as second-class citizens. The episode, which features the voices of Fivio Foreign, Killer Mike, Maino, and Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), examines how policing rap is a violation of the First Amendment.
The series concludes with the New York Senate passing the Rap Act, also known as S7527, which makes it more difficult for rap lyrics to be used in criminal trials. While much of the series ends on a triumphant note, the final episode ends on the strongest note yet. “Rappers could fuck around and tell Americans not to pay taxes,” Killer Mike says emphatically. That is what they are afraid of. They’re not worried about you shooting each other in the street. They simply do not want you to scare the money away… How much more powerful does that make you as a group?”
While the series’ hiccups appear to be a result of formula and catering to an apathetic audience, the Hulu series excels by being well researched and ready to move audiences into the deeper questions of exploitation that rap obscures.