Listen, if you want daytime-soapy melodrama and overwrought histrionics featuring barely-believable, over-the-top plot twists, by all means: continue to enjoy Empire on Fox. The tale of the Lyons’ unlikely rags-to-riches dynasty is a great, goopy mess of guilty-pleasure television, like a stack of pancakes drowned in buttery, syrupy, you-have-to-see-it-to-believe it schlock.But if what you’ve been looking for is something a little more well-rounded and wholesome — if you’re looking for a hip-hop show that’s actually about hip-hop — hop aboard VH1’s wayback machine and get a faceful of The Breaks, the season finale of which airs Monday, April 10.
This is the show that hip-hop heads have always dreamed about. Yes, it embraces the glitz of showbiz, like Empire, and the romanticism of the art form’s early days, like Baz Luhrmann’s woozy, whimsical Netflix show The Get Down but The BreaksThe Big Payback — which examines the role of the behind-the-scenes marketers, promoters, and deal-makers in rap’s rise to the pinnacle of pop culture — the show focuses on the pressure and potential of breaking into the burgeoning hip-hop scene (indeed, creating it from scratch), at a time when rap music was considered more fad than worldwide phenomenon.
What separates The Breaks from its counterparts is a commitment to the everyday, unfiltered realities of rap. Ironically enough for a genre whose guiding ethos is to ostensibly “keep it real,” so many rap-oriented shows shy away from the potential humdrum, mundane moments that a hardline focus on authenticity might bring. The Breaks leans right on into it. DJ and aspiring-producer DeeVee (played by Tristan Wilds, one of many The Wire alumnae that appears on the show) lives with his disapproving dad and has little luck with his lady friend, single-mom and music writer, Damita (Melonie Diaz). Nikki (Afton Williamson) and David (David Call) wrestle with the demands of maintaining a relationship while both trying to advance in their careers in the business, as a label head assistant and radio program director assistant, respectively. Ahm (Antoine Harris) is a hustler, maintaining an iron fist as boss in his Brooklyn projects, but recruits DeeVee to produce the tracks that give his well-hidden rap skills free reign to flourish, while Josie (Ali Ahn) works in her Korean-emigrant parents’ bodega by day, and as a freelance photographer by night.
Each member of the young cast bring layers, intensity, and honesty to their roles, breathing each character to something like real life. Rather than being clichéd, thinly-drawn types, they have real goals and motives that hew closer to difficult, real life truths than easy plot devices that simply move the action along. Call is petulant in his character’s interactions with his father, tender but hesitant in portraying David’s tense relationship with college sweetheart Nikki, and defiant in his belief that rap can belong on radio when standing up to his radio boss. Wilds, arguably the most experienced member of the younger half of the cast, plays DeeVee as shook but determined while venturing into the heart of the projects to reach out to Ahm, who he truly believes can be a star. In particular, Harris is a frightening figure, especially when he subjects Ahm to his stone cold stare, the kind that makes you believe he will actually murder someone in cold blood, then order the special with the wings fried HARD (as if there were any other way).