There are some scenes in Volume that are so remarkable that I got sad that the entire series wasn’t at that level. The show has the story and the performances, but only some of the scenes stood out. But the thing about Volume is that some of the scenes are so well shot, are so engaging, and encapsulate all the themes of the show that the shoddy scenes are forgotten. Set in Kenya, Volume is the story of an up-and-coming rapper with a crew, which includes Smallz and Castro, and together they try to ‘make it’ in a place where the punishment for one’s mistakes is pretty harsh.
It’s a world of petty crime, which can jump up on you, and you can find yourself knee-deep in murders and suicides if you are not careful. Volume presents its world pretty nicely. Its intention may have been to just look very glossy at points, but the unintended contrast between the gloss and the world it’s depicting creates a tension that fuels the show. The story begins with Benja, who is a church boy, but he is also a ‘street kid’ by to his own admission. That means his run on the accepted and righteous path could be derailed by his bad choices. He is a gifted rapper, destined for greatness, and his confidence is sustained by the company he keeps. There is Smallz, who composes Benja’s music and also keeps him grounded, but the real game changer in Benja’s life is Castro, even more so than Benja’s girlfriend, Lucy. Castro, the brother of gangster Maish, was always a troublemaker, and there was just no way that he wasn’t going to impact Benja’s life. Benja’s life becomes more complex when he meets Andrea, a talent manager who had eyes on him to make him a star, but who didn’t really understand how she could be impacted by the dark forces surrounding Benja.
Volume is a show about the themes of friendship and how criminal underpinnings shape geniality in the show’s universe. The constant obsession with ‘making it’ and trying to escape while also asserting one’s identity is that idea that keeps the episodes having an organic unity to them. There are multiple ‘worlds’ in this story, and even though everybody seems connected to each other, these ‘worlds’ seem isolated in the beginning. Volume creates tension by putting these worlds on a collision course. There is Andrea’s world of glamor, Benja’s world of music, Lucy’s world of religiosity, and Castro’s world of crime. Setting up these worlds impeccably was pretty important, as they helped create authentic conflicts that kept the show alive through the six episodes. The ‘worlds’ maintain a strict uniqueness, built by the shot composition and the camera movements when dealing with the different worlds. The interesting part is how Benja’s rise in the music business is shown, especially how he gets seduced by the glamor.
The show maintains an uneasy grittiness about itself. It never shies away from the gruesome reality that may surround someone like Benja. Movies like Straight Outta Compton are examples of the flamboyant crime world mixing in with the rapping scene. Volume is a story about boys who are just on the cusp of adolescence, so they are neither too responsible for their actions nor can they be given a free pass for their bad choices. Castro knew what he was doing when he contacted Sting, a drug lord, and that deal seemed to seal his fate. The show is unflinching when it comes to depicting how crime propagates. Maish, Castro’s brother, once was the most wanted man but had taken a backseat, hiding in plain sight as a garage manager. The brotherly bond was tested during the course of Benja’s rise to fame, and the two might seem like separate issues, but it’s a testament to good writing how Maish was connected to Benja’s life.
Volume rests on the shoulders of pretty good performances, and the credit will have to go to casting. Benja, played by Brian Kabugi, is pretty good, but the most interesting performance is given by Stephanie Muchiri, who plays the ‘vlog queen’ Ivy, who helped Benja gain popularity through her live streams in the show. She taps into her sadness, masked by an elegant persona. Her performance was always at risk of going overboard, but it didn’t, which made it all the more alive. Each and every performer seems to have in-depth knowledge about the stakes at which the series is functioning. Their performances when they express pain about loss and suffering or when they fight trying to resolve a conflict didn’t seem like ‘acting,’ which is the highest compliment I can give.
The show does have its issues, but they are never so glaring as to dominate the entire story. There are some scenes that look poorly shot, the sound design falters, and the dialogue suffers. The show could be accused of trying to cram too much in too little time, with little grip on the tempo of the plot. That being said, the show never lost me, despite the hiccups. The music in the show could have been better. There were some catchy tunes, but given that Benja’s character was supposed to be a rap sensation, the music should have supported him better. The emotional heft in the music also seemed lacking, except for a song like Psalm 23 that hid in it a kind of yearning for a father figure in Benja’s life. Volume is a crime drama in its essence that does well to capture the lives of those feeling stuck in a world where they don’t want to stay for long. It gives a backstory and a justification for each character’s motivations, and the actors were good enough to understand the assignment. It could have been more straightforward in its approach, though, cutting through the excess fat, but then it would have been more like a movie. As a series, its indulgences get excused and provide for some extra fun, and we get a whiff of Kenyan subculture that may or may not have been accurately portrayed, but hey, it’s fiction.