When Atlanta debuted back in 2016, I was utterly flabbergasted, like much of the viewing public. However, unlike the majority of the show’s viewers, my astonishment stemmed from a slightly different place. While many were floored by the show’s off-kilter humor and subtle performances from Bryan Tyree Henry, Lakeith Stanfield, and the show’s creator, Donald Glover, I was instead flummoxed at the show’s depiction of my actual life from the ages of about 18 to 25.
I had the similar, eerie feeling of watching my own life story — at least, in part — when I watched the first handful of episodes of Lil Dicky’s new FX show, Dave. With each of the two dark, awkward comedies, I felt a veil had been lifted. Each of the shows approached the chase for rap superstardom from slightly different angles, but some truly authentic ones — ones only someone who had been through the tribulations themselves would understand, but ways that only true outsiders would dare to portray. As it turns out, with all the shows out there that purport to pull back the curtain on the inner workings of the rap game, the most authentic depictions of the music industry on television come from a pair of deeply satirical, at times outright surreal comedies.
Let me disclaim here: I was by no means ever on the same path to stardom as Atlanta‘s Paper Boi or Dave‘s fictionalized version of Lil Dicky. None of my songs ever went viral; I never even finished a full project, aside from a poorly-mixed EP — the same project that ultimately convinced me to lay my dream to rest. But I did watch my friends and associates — guys I’d grown up with, performed with, recorded with, and cheered on from the sidelines — go through similar experiences to those portrayed on those shows. Blu, Pac Div, Thurz, and more were my compatriots in the early “blog era” hip-hop boom, and I had a front-row seat to the often bizarre goings-on of the rap industry periphery.
There are some shows — and to be honest, a lot of magazines, documentaries, interviews, and other “journalistic” endeavors — that would have you believe that the rap music industry is a ship-shape, buttoned-up, professional enterprise run by folks who have a total grip on how it works and crystal-clear plans on breaking out to mainstream attention and critical acclaim. But the fun thing about watching FX’s dark hip-hop comedies — at least to me — is how quickly those facades are stripped away to show the dirty truth that seemingly no one in the music business wants “civilians” to know: Nobody has any clue what they’re doing.
Dave‘s fictionalized version of Dave Burd — aka Lil Dicky — bumbles through all the insecurities I went through as a young artist. He’s too scared to ask for help and insecure about his prospects, so he hides behind bluster. His encounters with would-be peers in the rap game such as Young Thug, Trippie Redd, YG, and more and his arguments for not trying to recruit their assistance remind me of my own reticence to ask Pac Div for a feature, or to tell Blu I wanted in on that one song during a recording session. Likewise, all of Dave’s and Paper Boi’s struggles to parlay their tiny bit of internet fame into other opportunities are exactly what I watched friends go through, from charity celebrity basketball games to problematic meetings with label A&Rs and potential sponsors.
Watching Donald Glover’s Earn grapple with learning the tricky interpersonal politics of management is exactly what it looks like on the ground. While social media makes it looks like managers and publicists float above it all, making deals and connections with ease, the reality is much closer to GaTa’s “wiggling,” fast-talking, finesse, trying to convince seemingly important people that you’re important enough to buy a few moments of their time. The picture on the ground is much closer to the everyday grind of Atlanta and Dave‘s hardscrabble hustle, flying by the seat of your pants and hoping things work out at the 11th hour.
The shows are also much more realistic depictions of artists themselves. When Dave‘s engineer Elz approaches Trippie to pitch his production, Trippie tells the timid wannabe that he should show some more heart. In reality, these stars are much more down-to-earth than glowing profiles and prickly public personas would suggest. In truth, hip-hop artists are just people, as prone to bad moods and bouts of emotional insecurity as anyone. They may boast a lot on record, but in both my years pursuing the craft and more recently interviewing and profiling them, I’ve found that the vast majority are just like any of your everyday friends and neighbors, albeit with a lot more money and an image to uphold.
Contracts are often solidified on-the-fly, fan encounters veer from exasperating to uplifting, and through it all, a love of the art form keeps everyone going, chasing a dream that only a spare few ever get to truly execute at the highest level. Almost any artist would agree; why else are these shows populated with cameos from the likes of trap rappers and blog favorites? It’s likely because they recognize the authenticity behind these shows’ narratives, seeing their own stories reflected on screen and in the scripts as the only true representations of the rap game as they know it, having seen it from behind the curtain in all its surreal oddity, awkward drama, and yes, its dark comedy.