Ozark frequently uses ’90s hip-hop to define Ruth Langmore, one of its most popular characters. The end result is a character whose relationship to the music doesn’t feel forced or comes across as an insincere schtick, often the case with white TV characters who listen to rap music.
Through Ozark‘s three-and-a-half seasons viewers have seen Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner) grow into one of the show’s most fascinating characters. Since that fateful day when she first met Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) after stealing some of his money, Ruth’s arc has seen a handful of highs and lows, with this last season — the first half of season four was released on Netflix on January 21st — seeming to push her to a breaking point that is just as exhilarating as it is terrifying.
But even as tensions come to a disastrous high with the series coming to an end, Ozark continues to remind viewers of Ruth’s most peculiar characteristic — she’s a hip-hop head. From listening to The Notorious B.I.G.’s “I Got a Story to Tell” and “Somebody’s Gotta Die” following her dad’s release from prison to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?” soundtracking a poolside hang at the Lazy-O Motel, Ruth is a fan of hip-hop — specifically ’90s hip-hop.
White TV characters who have an affinity for rap are often parodies of real life representations of white rap fans. Atlanta has poked fun at the white woman rap fan who makes acoustic guitar covers of rap songs; Succession has used Kendall’s ’90s rap obsession to basically lambast well off and privileged white men who use rap as a signifier of social currency or rebellious voyeurism. In these parodies, a commentary is made on the inauthenticity or insincerity of these supposed rap fans and — in the case of Kendall — only adds to his unappealing presence.
In the case of Ozark, Ruth’s rap fandom actually adds to her likability. Although the series has had its moments with jarring music placements, it’s done a good job at making Ruth’s relationship with rap feel real and not forced. An integral part of this is who Ruth is: she’s a hardened teenager experiencing some of the same socioeconomic problems as the rappers she listens to, forcing her to navigate life in a way she ideally wouldn’t have to. For her, rap isn’t voyeuristic; it’s an escape that speaks to her own reality. When lines like “I’m sittin’ in the crib dreamin’ about Lear jets and coupes” from “Somebody’s Gotta Die” play as she’s laying on the hood of her car, it’s hard not think about her stalled conversation with Marty about her future (“Reparations” from season two). When the hook from Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” plays as she lounges in her truck, it’s a reminder that cash is literally ruling everything around her (the irony of this placement happening as she’s parked right outside the casino she’s helping Marty launder money through).
But it’s also how she engages with the music that helps, too. There’s no overdoing it; she’s often seen just listening away and bobbing her head, never audibly reciting or trying to perform the parts (something that rarely, if ever, translates well when an actor has to do this). The music is allowed to just exist and enhance the scene, functioning almost like a secondary character at times — a friend that Ruth has always wanted manifested in the form of her favorite rap songs. (It also helps that Julia Garner listens to ’90s hip-hop — especially Biggie — in real life.)
“Usually songs are tied to a character. Ruth listening to only old school hip-hop is an obvious example. It helped define who she is,” Ozark show runner Chris Mundy said in an interview with Men’s Health.
Hopefully, Ozark will have one more rap placement for Ruth when the second half of the last season drops. But until then, there’s a handful of Ruth rap music moments to revisit in the meantime.