In the pilot episode of “Insecure,” the critically lauded HBO comedy series created by Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore, Rae’s eponymous character Issa is at a crossroads. She’s in a stable but stale relationship, and the occasion of her 29th birthday has her wondering if she’s wasting time on a romance that’s heading nowhere. Issa decides to take her best friend Molly, who’s also feeling unlucky in love after a streak of failed flings, to an open mic night in hopes of setting her up with someone new—but secretly to reconnect with an ex-boyfriend. Before long, egged on by said ex, Issa winds up on the stage rapping about “Broken Pussy,” a term that she coined to explain Molly’s recent poor run of form (“Maybe it’s really rough, maybe it’s had enough.”)
The resulting cheesy freestyle, set to the tune of Kelis’ twinkly 2006 hit “Bossy,” makes the cut as the second song on Insecure (Music From the HBO Original Series). Its placement injects a welcome dose of Issa’s personality (both fictional and real—Rae wrote the song with Wilmore) into the soundtrack, while acting as the skeleton key to understanding the rest of the selection; back on the small screen, “Broken Pussy” costs Molly the attention of a potential love interest and leads to a big fight between the two, but they reconcile easily by the end of the episode. The show “Insecure” excels at tracing the professional and affective tribulations of young black adults in L.A., but it stands apart for its depiction of the unbreakable black female friendship at the heart of the story.
Insecure (Music from the HBO Original Series) celebrates this dynamic with 16 songs: mostly by or about women, almost exclusively by black artists. Arkansas-native Kari Faux kicks things off with “No Small Talk,” an anthem for the self-possessed, recorded previously for her 2014 EP Laugh Now, Die Later. A ringing phone blends in with a hard-hitting drum pattern to buoy Faux’s cool-but-confident delivery, replete with nods to Pimp C and 2 Chainz: “Three cellphones and I still don’t ever text ‘em/Catch me out in public and you know I’m flexin’.” Faux makes another appearance on “Top Down” assisted by Brooklyn MC Leikeli47, whose cadence recalls that of fellow New Yorker Amil. The song, a bouncy electropop composition about riding around in a drop top feeling like a million bucks, was commissioned for the first season finale.
Much of the soundtrack appeared across “Insecure”’s 8 episodes to date, curated by the show’s eminent musical consultant Solange Knowles, who knows a thing or two about elucidating the black female experience on wax to dazzling effect. The feel-good anthems give way to songs that address a range of romantic entanglements. “Girl,” a standout track from the Internet’s 2015 album Ego Death, is expertly reimagined as an electric-guitar-driven ode to the feminine by SoCal ensemble 1500 or Nothin. Guordan Banks switches between the high and low register over a slick bassline on “Keep You in Mind,” a call for moving past the coy stages of flirtation onto something more serious.
Although Faux’s “Top Down” is the only original song on Insecure, the rest were chosen carefully to illuminate the main characters’ tastes and animate the world that they inhabit, situated for the most part in predominantly black South L.A. neighborhoods like Leimert Park and Baldwin Hills. This is achieved by featuring either the work of local artists, like the 1500 or the Internet themselves (“Just Sayin/I Tried”), or songs that evoke a similar sense of place, like the sunny strings of “Palm Trees” by D.C. rapper GoldLink.
Considered independently from the influences of the show, the “Insecure” soundtrack works as a seamless collection of hip-hop, soul and R&B. The list of performers runs the gamut from established artists like D’Angelo (“Sugah Daddy”) and Thundercat (“Heartbreaks + Setbacks”) to emerging talents like TT the Artist (“Lavish”) and Banks, who claimed his first Billboard #1 with “Keep You in Mind” last summer. In recent months, the well-timed placement of a song in a new TV series has taken on renewed importance as a means for new artists to raise their profile. “Insecure” was already renewed for a second season and while the protagonists’ fate is surely the highest priority for fans, a chance to devour the forthcoming score can’t be too far behind.