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Songs for Screens: ‘Insecure’ Music Supervisor on Why City Girls Are ‘The SZA of This Season’

Songs For Screens is a Variety column sponsored by music experiential agency MAC Presents, based in NYC. It is written by Andrew Hampp, founder of music marketing consultancy 1803 LLC and former correspondent for Billboard. Each week, the column will highlight noteworthy use of music in advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as new and catalog songs that we deem ripe for synch use.

Few shows currently on television have captured the current musical zeitgeist better than HBO’s “Insecure.”

Driven by star, executive producer and co-writer Issa Rae as well as longtime music supervisor Kier Lehman, the Emmy-nominated series’ song selections have mirrored and sometimes even predicted the current wave of hip-hop/R&B, with key narrative-driven synchs for acts like SZA, GoldLink, Daniel Caesar and many other contemporary heavyweights in its first two seasons.

Sunday’s premiere of the third season continued this hot streak, with the slinky, Steve Lacy-produced sounds of Ravyn Lenae’s “Sticky” kicking off a dozen high-profile music beds that included A-listers Cardi B (“Bickenhead”), Miguel (“Banana Clip”) and Ty Dolla $ign (“So Am I”) as well as newcomers like Valee (“Womp Womp”), TNT Tez (“Coca-Cola”) and Cautious Clay (“Cold War”). Singer Dawn Richard also makes a cameo as an aspiring artist in the episode, in the tradition of previous mini roles for musicians like Jidenna, Luke James, Hayley Kiyoko and The Internet’s Syd.

Perhaps the biggest standout is a scene in which Rae’s character Issa Dee is picking up customers during her part-time shift as a Lyft driver, in which one passenger exclaims “I love this song!” to City Girls’ “Where the Bag At.” Though the scene was filmed before the song was secured, the collaboration between Lehman and Rae led to the Quality Control rap duo becoming this season’s musical avatar in the same way that SZA’s “CTRL” album and original song “Quicksand” did for Season 2. At least one more City Girls track will appear later in an upcoming episode, and as Rae tweeted during the premiere, “City Girls really define the season for us.”

“It’s so hard and rare to make that magic happen organically,” says Jenny Swiatowy, VP-creative synch licensing for Capitol Music Group’s Seventeenfifty, who pitched Lehman on including the group this season. “We’re oftentimes pushing artists because they’re priorities, but you can’t make someone love an artist the way that Issa did.”

City Girls are in the middle of a breakthrough summer, having released their debut mixtape “Period” on May via Quality Control Music on the heels of their viral appearance on Drake’s Song of the Summer “In My Feelings.” But founding member JT is currently serving a two-year sentence credit card fraud, which leaves the duo’s other half Yung Miami to fulfill promo duties in the meantime.

City Girls have also yet to finalize a publisher, so the “Insecure” clearance was handled directly with the Quality Control management team and their attorneys. “As soon as I heard one of the first songs they put out… I was like, ‘This is perfect for the show, Issa’s gonna love them,’” says Lehman.

Songs For Screens spoke with Lehman shortly after “Insecure” Season 3 premiered to get the scoop on his and Rae’s supervision process, a preview of other upcoming synchs and whether or not Rae’s budding friendship with Drake will carry over into the new episodes.

The music of “Insecure” is very much in the voice of Issa Rae and her character on the show. How does that reflect your collaboration with Issa on selecting the music for each episode?
It’s definitely driven by Issa. It’s her voice and her tastes, and I work with her as kind of a facilitator. So as we get into the beginning of the season, especially now that we’ve worked together for a little while, we have a shorthand. I know what she likes, so I’m reaching out to artists to get music if it’s unreleased or ahead of an album coming out, or reaching out to artists to see if they can create music.

Then I’ll reach out to Issa and make playlists for her of new music so the editors can pull from that and she can pull from that. Sometimes she’ll say, “Hey, I don’t love this song, can we try this and this?” and review the options to choose her favorite.

Issa tweeted that City Girls, whose song “Where The Bag At” is featured in the premiere, “really define” this season. Is their music meant to be an avatar for Issa and Molly’s narrative this year the way SZA did in Season 2?
It’s funny you say that because Issa just sent me an email that says exactly that: They are the SZA of this season. Their music will reoccur in the show. As soon as I heard one of the first songs they put out was on the Quality Control compilation, I was like, “This is perfect for the show, Issa’s gonna love them.” That’s when I connected with Jenny [Swiatowy] to say, “Can I get anything for the Girls? Do they have anything else coming out?” She sent me the ones that they had, I got the record really quickly and I made sure I sent those on to Issa. And then she really connected with it and wanted to make sure it was featured prominently in that episode.

One of the most impressive aspects of the music on the show is your real-time usage of songs as they’re blowing up, like London R&B trio Radiant Children. How far in advance do you begin the supervision process?
We definitely work hard for that. We started working on the new season in March, so I guess April is when we started working on the first couple episodes. We’re just out there collecting music, talking to people to let them know how we use music on the show and the response it gets. Obviously we get a lot of advanced music before it’s released to see if we can use it for the show, and sometimes it just works out organically. With Radiant Children, the music was done and they were working on the release of an EP that’s about to come out right after this placement, so that stuff times up well. We’re not planning necessarily around releases, but more about what really connects with our direction of this fresh, LA, current R&B sound.

RCA has been your label partner for the soundtracks since Season 1, and you’ve featured many of its artists over the years like Miguel, SZA, D’Angelo, GoldLink and others. How much input do they have in terms of the overall music on the show?
They’ve been a great partner, and they kind of let us lead with the music. Of course, they want their artists to be featured in the show, so they’re making sure that we have all of their upcoming releases and put us in touch with their artists to write original things for us. So we’ll have a bunch of new music from some RCA artists in the next few episodes, and new music that we’ve created for the show that will be released on the soundtrack as well from artists that maybe aren’t signed already. A lot of the music we work with is independent, which in a way helps with getting stuff on the soundtrack because even if it’s not an RCA artist, they’re not on another major label so it’s less complicated.

Issa made a memorable appearance in Drake’s “Nice for What” video this spring, and “Scorpion” is unquestionably the album of the summer. Will we see any Drake songs this season, or is that too on-the-nose for “Insecure?”
That’s a good question. I don’t know yet — we’re still working on it. Sometimes when it’s a big song that has been out for a little while, like the Kendrick song [“Alright”] for the first season, it was something where we had to have that. We’ve done the Ice Cubes and the old-school L.A. stuff, so there may be some moments like that this season. But in the first episode this week, we had a Cardi B song, but it’s not “I Like It” or the single. We definitely wanted to still have her presented in the sound of the show.

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