As we seem to be in the second leg of a golden age of television—one that actually includes black folks and other people of color—certain shows have mastered a sort of storytelling that feels more complete than the ones that came before them. For many writers, directors, and showrunners, employing music as a function of the narrative is imperative to that completion.
The best shows seem to use its songs as indicators of the worlds we enter each week we tune in. Last year, once we heard “No Hook” by Oj Da Juiceman (who deserves his own episode of TV One’s Unsung) slap during the first few minutes FX’s Atlanta, it was clear that we were in Donald Glover’s Atlanta — not Hollywood’s, nor anyone else’s.
Not to mention the fact that his Atlanta is the home of Migos’ acting debut.
Even shows with less lofty ambitions — shows like HBO’s Ballers — find creative ways of incorporating music. Starring Dwayne Johnson, and featuring guest appearances by a slew of other former and current professional athletes, Ballers seems to have developed a fruitful relationship with Vince Staples.
As the Long Beach rapper has found his groove in recent years, stumbling upon a more streamlined and synthetic style of hip-hop, he’s had no problem lending that groove to match the energy of Ballers’ musclebound main players. Last season, the show debuted Staples’ dauntingly forceful track, “War Ready,” off the artist’s 2016 EP, Prima Donna.
Ahead of Ballers’ return for its third season on Sunday, July 23rd, “BagBak,” an offering from Staples’ most recent work, Big Fish Theory, provided a high-octane backdrop for the season’s initial teaser trailer featuring fast cars, dice rolling and duffle bags full of money.
While Ballers has expressed an affinity for music and the tone that it offers, Insecure, another HBO hit, has displayed an unwavering dedication to the rich and detailed texture a well-placed song affords its characters—a dedication so consistently black and spirited, even our real President has become a fan.
Earlier this week, while promoting season two of her critically acclaimed and creatively triumphant series, also returning July 23rd, Issa Rae made an appearance on Complex News’ daily music talk show, Everyday Struggle. She spoke to the process of selecting songs to score the stories of Insecure.
Within that process, Rae has always managed to maintain strong parallels between the show’s themes and its music. Beyond slyly including a different Drake reference in each episode, along with occasional freestyles performed by Rae herself, season one offered a soundtrack that succinctly captured the spirit of its characters.
Drawing from the duality of dating in your twenties, Insecure’s inaugural soundtrack featured energetic and reckless anthems like ‘No Small Talk“ by Kari Faux and “D2B (D**k 2 Bomb)“ by Problem right alongside more measured, contemplative tracks such as “Just Sayin/I Tried“ by The Internet and “Borders“ by St. Beauty.
As fans—especially #LawrenceHive—are excited to catch up with their favorite characters during the premiere of season two, Rae seems stoked for another opportunity to curate the accompanying aesthetic.
As artists and songwriters, women have generally dictated the sound of Insecure. One should look for that to continue throughout season two, given how many incredible songs women have churned out since season one ended in November—many of which can be heard on SZA’s debut album, CTRL.
Speaking to how much of that project we’ll hear in the background of these upcoming episodes, Rae explains on Everyday Struggle “there’s a lot that connects to our second season, and it was very tempting to be like let’s put it all in here…Kari Faux, [who] I love, last season we featured like six of her songs throughout. So who knows?”
With SZA’s knack for knowing what she doesn’t know as a lover, and her commitment to mapping those things out as a writer, mirroring the way Rae has chosen to create her show’s characters, songs like “Love Galore“, “Supermodel“, and “Drew Barrymore” could easily make it onto this season’s soundtrack.
Beyond TDE’s resident songstress, Insecure’s braintrust has been gifted an abundance of feminine voices to choose from this year.
As Rae noted during her Complex visit, “Obviously, season one was more of an introduction. [Season two] is really about them—given the events of the season finale last year—figuring out who they don’t want to be as people.”
As characters collect themselves this year, each picking their own pieces up off the pavement, it’s tempting to imagine one of Solange’s odes to self-care on A Seat At The Table scoring a scene or two throughout that process. With the show’s striking cinematography, showcasing a sort of vibrant and scenic charm of South Central L.A, the lush production of “Cranes In The Sky” would ring off perfectly over sights of the city.
Aside from growth and introspection, of course, there’s also some fun to be had. Notably, every character on the show is single this season, which means more drinking, more sex scenes and more bangers.
The rambunctious energies of Kari Faux and Leikeli47 on season one’s soundtrack could be duplicated with the addition of New York based rappers Princess Nokia and Cardi B.
Both personifying the irreverent independence of single womanhood, Issa and Molly’s adventures would be well scored by Cardi’s summer banger “Bodak Yellow” or Nokia’s body-positive “Tomboy.”
Given Rae’s track record for including songs with bold and empowering lyrics in her show, it wouldn’t be a terrible reach to hope to hear Princess Nokia emphatically chant “my little titties and my phat belly” repeatedly throughout a club scene, or Cardi B declare “I don’t gotta dance, I make money moves” as the credits roll.
Perhaps most congruent with the overarching theme of the season and the series is rapper, singer, and fellow California native Kamaiyah’s latest single, “Build You Up.” Warm-hearted and ‘90s inspired, “Build You Up” infectiously samples Feels Good by Tony! Toni! Toné! A comforting spin on healing after heartache, the song is definitely new era cookout music.
As Insecure continues to pinpoint what it’s like to live and love as a black millennial, its exploration of sound is sure to grow along with its audience. While we enjoy the temporary grace of what seems to be a black renaissance happening on television right now, a trend that seems to come and go in cycles, it’s urgent that we not only be seen, but also heard at bass slapping volumes.