After five seasons of love, loss, friendship and party Lyfts, HBO’s hit comedy drama Insecure is coming to an end. The creation of writer and actor Issa Rae, Insecure has become a cultural touchstone for a new kind of representation in media, one that has opened the door to complicated, authentic arcs for its characters and visibility for awkward, amazing, multifaceted Black fans who finally feel seen by the television they watch. Insecure will go down in pop culture history for many reasons, but one ripple effect of the show that Rae and her team have turned into a tidal wave of influence is the specific way it has shaped the sound and scope of Black music in its wake.
Between Raphael Saadiq composing, Kier Lehman serving as music supervisor and Rae having such a clear vision for the sound of the show, the musical soul of Insecure has remained consistently impeccable over five seasons. No matter how much our opinions of characters and plot lines wavered, the music always held us down.
With each passing season, the show’s main characters – Issa and her best friend, Molly – have sloughed off stereotypes that have long flattened depictions of Black people. This consistent musical track record has even extended into the show’s storylines (Daniel’s producer dreams getting dashed, the Season 3 pilgrimage to Beychella and Issa’s star-studded block party) and blossomed beyond the show itself with Rae starting her own record label imprint, Raedio. Whether the show’s characters were flourishing, floundering or lighting a joint in order to forget, emerging artists were the ones they had on shuffle.
“There was a shift in music, a new wave in R&B,” Lehman tells All Songs Considered. “The millennial point of view that the show has also was being reflected in the music that was coming out: SZA, Tyler[, the Creator], Odd Future, Frank [Ocean]. That was a movement that was happening and it was really at the same time that the show was coming … We took that into consideration. ‘What is the music of these [characters]? What would they be listening to?'”
But the team not only identified that shift, they helped distinguish it.
Insecure‘s mode of storytelling created a sounding board for viscerally blunt, honest and left-of-center Black artists. In the last five years, albums like SZA’s Ctrl; Sampha’s Process; Ari Lennox’s Shea Butter Baby; Nao’s Saturn; Tyler, The Creator’s Flower Boy; Summer Walker’s Over It and, most recently, Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales have come to define a specific sub-genre of music, one that caters to Black millennials with a new sense of depth and realness: imperfect, awkward, sexually ambidextrous but also intimately anxious, actualizing dreams in ways that nobody told them was possible and purposely rejecting any two-dimensional archetypes placed on them.
“Insecure‘s showing us things about ourselves on screen that we didn’t really always see,” says TeaMarrr, a Raedio signee whose song “Pipe Dreams” appears on the final season soundtrack. TeaMarrr credits Rae with opening a new lane in terms of honesty in songwriting for herself and others by leading by example.
“Like her sex scene with TSA bae,” TeaMarrr says, referring to a scene in Season 4 with Issa and a fan-favorite fling. “First of all, two Black people having sex on screen? And then one of them is big … Every time they do something like that, a whole genre of stuff comes out because it’s like, ‘Now we can talk about that.'”
Even as the show has grown in popularity, the music curation tended to shy away from Top 40 hits that would’ve been playing on the radio, in favor of an aesthetic that feels curated for these particular characters. The creators bet big on small acts, in some cases, giving new talent their first professional placements. Voices like Kari Faux, BOSCO and Sampha have been heard in multiple seasons. Raedio has held dedicated Insecure music writing camps for the last two years to allow new musicians to contribute directly to the soundtrack of the season, riffing off themes laid out by the show’s creators. The opportunity simultaneously gives artists a platform and inspires them to usher in new points of view into their songwriting.
“We’ve all dealt with f*** n****s and didn’t want to admit it,” says Nnena, commenting on the relatable push and pull of relationships that has been a staple of the series arc. Nnena’s slow burner “Fun” expressed the feelings Issa and Lawrence couldn’t — “I ain’t never seen people break up with no words!” — in the Season 5 premiere. “I feel like [Insecure] just knows how to play with our emotions so good cause they’ve been through it too,” she says. “That’s what makes writing to it feel so natural.”
“There’s no need to be pigeonholed into one singular sound or singular situation,” says L.A.-based artist B.K. Habermehl, whose jazz-drenched “Time Off,” which was written at this year’s writing camp, appears on the final season’s soundtrack. “I like to just be dancing throughout the different genres within each song and knowing that the audience is here for that. The audience is open for it too…. They’re here for all different types of expressions of who you are as a human, like there’s not just one way to be.”
Merie W Wallace/HBO
The legacy of Insecure‘s influence is going to reach far beyond the last sunset on Issa Rae’s dream of South L.A. The musical choices made on Insecure transcend a soundtrack. They act as its heartbeat — there to allow viewers to float in a few extra seconds of levity, to submerge deeper under the weight of bad decisions, to generally just catch our breath. They make the show whole. On the other side of the lens, the new outpouring of completely whole Black narratives in music has helped a generation communicate, cope and grow more honestly.
“I think having a little bit of that validation from being included in something like Insecure also allows these voices, not just mine, to get through, to expand even more, to grow even more,” Habermehl says. “I feel like that’s a lot of the theme of the show too: Growing into yourself.”