First Impressions: Netflix’s Rapture examines the power of hip hop with empathy and intimacy

Hip hop, now considered the dominant and most popular style of contemporary music in the world, is one of the most powerful and important forms of art to emerge in the past few decades, and that can be an incredibly hard notion for many to wrap their head around. The fascination with the art and culture has never been more prevalent, and we’re seeing that come across frequently with films (like Straight Outta Compton), TV series (like The Get Down) and documentaries (like The Defiant Ones) all of which can be related to one another due to a strong and powerful focus on context. These three works sketch in the reasons behind the rhymes, tethering hip hop’s music to the wider contexts in which these artists come from in order to make more people understand what is sometimes a very esoteric art form, one that requires a much deeper understanding of the culture to fully appreciate.

“Rap isn’t real music”, “sampling is lazy”, “I can’t even understand what they’re rapping about”, “it’s just all gangsta crap” – all ignorant criticisms regularly aimed at the music and the culture, and all driven by a lack of context. The appreciation, experience and effectiveness of an artist’s work, in any realm, is almost always reliant on factors beyond the work itself, and so having films, TV shows and documentaries like the aforementioned penetrate into mainstream consciousness is important and, for those on the outside looking in, eye-opening.

The latest to join that category is Rapture: a new eight-part docuseries produced in collaboration between Netflix and Mass Appeal, making full use of the knowledge, access and passion of stalwart hip hop journalist, cultural commentator and executive producer Sacha Jenkins (Word is Bond; Fresh Dressed) as well as a contingent of directors each working on different episodes. The episodes, each focusing on just one or two hip hop artists across generations, are all being released on the on-demand streaming platform on 30th March and will undoubtedly be pushed as must-watch TV, not just for hip hop fans, but for lovers of music and art in general.

Veterans like Nas and T.I each share their stories, and are in turn given context throughout the documentary, alongside other artists like rising emcees Rapsody and Dave East, newcomers like A Boogie wit da Hoodie, recent success stories like Logic, G-Eazy, and 2 Chainz, and legendary producer Just Blaze. What’s promised is a close look at the contexts and backstories of these artists, illustrated via intimate access into their personal lives and complemented by immersive filmmaking.

That much is evident in the first episode, which was directed by Jenkins and focuses on both Nas and Dave East. It’s an interesting contrast between someone like Nas, who has had an unimpeachable career and impact on hip hop (and music in general), and East, who is relatively new to the scene and is only now starting to pick up on worldwide recognition. The episode is quite long, but time is used well, slowly but carefully taking us through the different nuances of first Nas’, then Dave East’s life as they walk two very different roads, away from the studio or the stage.

Jenkins includes Jungle, Nas’ younger brother and rapper in his own right, at the very beginning of the episode. The Bravehearts emcee is telling a story about the last day he ever sold drugs, when Nas came and scooped him up in a limo. It’s one of the more engaging stories in the episode, and gets at a wider, much more crucial element that has surrounded hip hop ever since it began. It provides an outlet for people in these environments to better their lives and those around them, to express themselves in healthier ways than getting caught up in the trappings of such a lifestyle.

A cameo and unreleased song (which, by the way, is a banger that needs to be heard) by Killer Mike is a welcome inclusion as we watch Nas chatting with the Run the Jewels emcee about deeper meanings behind songs that may on the surface sound superficial and gratuitous.

Though it’s Dave East’s story that is rightfully given centre stage with much of the episode dedicated to him and his imminent success. We’re taken into his home and we meet his family and (absolutely adorable) daughter. The intimacy with which Jenkins shoots this documentary is effective, allowing the audience to really get to know and empathise with East’s life and situation. There’s an interesting contrast between oncoming success and the unique pull of the past that many rappers have no doubt experienced, but that isn’t explored too much, with more attention instead given to Dave’s very promising future.

Oddly enough, the episode ends with Nas staring out of the window of a limousine with genuine curiosity, scanning historic houses in New Orleans for potential vacation spots. The iconic emcee muses on ghosts and the possibility of an unseen world existing around us. It may seem like an incongruent ending, but perhaps the story was included to further drive home the docuseries’ intentions. We see hip hop on the surface, but there’s an entire world bubbling beneath the surface which we, as listeners or observers, are rarely privy too. Rapture seems like it will shed more than just a patch of life on those uncovered areas, and hopefully bring people to a better understanding of hip hop and how the culture feeds into the art.

An examination of the power and impact of hip hop, Rapture wisely brings in artists from all over the U.S. It’s always been widely known that geographical differences and regional dialect play an incredibly important part in hip hop music. That might be less of a case now as it was in the 90’s and early 2000’s when there was a clear distinction between the music of West, East and South coasts, but it’s also very important to bring in all those different perspectives.

Chalk this one up a must-see, especially if you want to learn more about hip hop and how the artists within the culture experience and express life.

Rapture will premiere on Netflix on the 30th March 2018. This review was from the SXSW premiere earlier this month.