In 'On the Come Up,' an aspiring teen rapper grapples with life

A street-smart poet-geek navigates challenges pulled from the headlines. 

On the Come Up By Angie Thomas HarperCollins 464 pp.

For existing Angie Thomas fans, the short review of her second novel, On the Come Up, is a simple “Yes.” It’s OK to exhale. She did it again. 

For those who haven’t heard of Thomas, or thought her audience was limited to young adults, “On the Come Up” is a second chance to enter her fictional world with its page-turning plots and real-life connections. 

The book, a coming-of-age story of an aspiring teenage rapper, follows Thomas’s bestselling debut, “The Hate U Give,” later developed into a 20th Century Fox movie. Like her first book, it’s set in fictional Garden Heights, a predominantly black neighborhood worn down by poverty but rich in relationships. It’s similarly cinematic, snapping with vivid dialogue and descriptions.

“I live on the east side of the Garden, where the houses are nicer, the homeowners are older, and the gunshots aren’t as frequent.... But it’s kinda like saying one side of the Death Star is safer than the other. It’s still the ... Death Star,” says Thomas’s heroine, 16-year-old Brianna “Bri” Jackson. She’s bright and bristly on the page, a recognizable teenager in her passions and humor and occasional poor choices. She also has a darker and more complicated home life than Starr Carter, the heroine of “The Hate U Give,” living a few degrees closer to gang violence and a step ahead of financial ruin. (Publisher guidelines suggest the book is appropriate for Grades 9 and up; it includes plenty of profanity and some mature themes.)

Chronologically, the book begins in the aftermath of “The Hate U Give,” though it’s not a sequel, unless Garden Heights itself counts as a character. When we meet Bri, she’s juggling college prep classes with her more burning motivation to break out as a star. She lives in the shadow of her father, a singer murdered just as he was gaining fame, while dealing with the emotional scars of her mother’s past addictions. We see the whole village it takes to raise her, and the complicated trade-offs required. 

Life is already hard enough for Bri, and then her mother loses her job as a church secretary. From there the stress rises to a wild pitch, through incidents that would sound overly dramatic if they didn’t mirror real-life headlines. 

At her magnet school, Bri is thrown to the ground by security guards who wrongly suspect her of selling drugs. The bitter song she writes afterward goes viral, but even fame gets complicated: The persona she adopts in her angry lyrics is the hoodlum she was mistaken for, not the street-smart poet-geek she really is. 

Challenges race on from there with the breezy speed of a vacation read, as misunderstandings and old grudges warp into outright danger. Every subplot is tidily (too tidily?) resolved as Bri explores everything from family ties to romance, from the nature of friendship to finding your own moral compass. It’s a roller-coaster ride emceed by an irrepressibly appealing – and believable – guide. 

“You can only spell brilliant by first spelling Bri,” goes her signature line. But there’s a kid like any other behind the swagger, as when Bri fears her childhood friends are leaving her behind.

“They’re going places, so why should they hang out with somebody who’s only going to the principal’s office?” she wonders.

Her friend Sonny sets her straight.

“Bri, you’re my sis, okay? I knew you when you were afraid of Big Bird.”

“Oh my God, it is not logical for a bird to be that big! Why can’t y’all get that?”

Thomas, who was a rapper herself as a teen, wrote that she intended the book as a love letter to hip-hop, and to girls like Bri, “those black girls who are often made to feel as if they are somehow both too much and not enough in a world that makes wrongheaded assumptions about them.” Like Thomas’s first book, it’s bound to resonate with readers who don’t often see themselves and their communities at the center of a story. 

I don’t know whether Bri’s life is as broadly relatable as Starr’s, but “On the Come Up” should appeal to a wider audience, regardless of color, background, political views, or even musical tastes. (It might be uncomfortable for those who relate more closely to the “middle-aged white woman” who speaks out at a school board meeting against Bri’s “vulgar, violent” song and the dangers of students “from certain communities.” But her words, too, echo what we hear in the real world.)

We don’t need to share Bri’s experiences to learn from her story, any more than prep school is required to relate to Holden Caulfield, or an interest in the Revolutionary War is necessary to love “Hamilton.” With “On the Come Up,” like a hit song, the bigger themes will linger right along with the catchy beat.

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