Since The Hate U Give was published in 2017, it has received so much praise that I’m convinced that it’s already a modern classic and that it will wind up being required reading for some high schools in the future. As such, I would imagine its author Angie Thomas thinking long and hard about her follow up. Luckily, that novel On the Come Up is just as good as The Hate U Give despite being two different books.
On the Come Up is about 16-year-old Brianna Jackson or simply Bri, who wants to become one of the greatest rappers of all time, or at least get out of her neighborhood. As the daughter of a famous underground rapper, Bri has big shoes to fill. However, when her mom unexpectedly loses her job, food banks and shutoff notices became normal in her life. Bri decides to pour out her frustrations into her first song, which goes viral…for all the wrong reasons. She finds herself in the middle of a controversy with the media portraying her as a menace rather than a MC. But with her family facing the possibility of homelessness, Bri knows that she has to make it. Basically, this is the song “Lose Yourself” and the movie 8 Mile in book form.
Much like the main character, On the Come Up has a lot to live up to, and it was a wonderful read. The novel makes readers like me pumped for Bri’s rapping as well as root for her success. I wanted her to speak when she choked or refused to stand up for herself, cheered when she spat out some awesome flows and rhymes, and yelled at her when she did something incredibly stupid. In other words, I was engaged during the time that I read it.
It also helps that Starr from The Hate U Give and Bri are two different characters. Starr is a passive character who’s a good person and clearly the victim in her situation. She eventually learns the importance of speaking up. Bri, on the other hand, had no trouble doing that, but she has a problem of when to utilize it. There were plenty of times that she could be pretty impulsive and stubborn, especially when she vented out her feelings on how the media was treating her on a live broadcast on Instagram. At one point, I literally yelled “AUNT POOH WARNED YOU!”
And, there are times, in which I thought that she should have used her voice like when the Black-Latinx Coalition wanted her permission to use the video where she gets manhandled by some white security guards at her school. I understood why because the memory was too fresh for her, but it could have helped to show what truly happened, and why the other students got very angry at them to the point that they started singing Bri’s song. At the same time, there’s the possibility of the media and white audiences misconstruing the story no matter how clear the evidence is. Bri comes off as a difficult person to like at times overall. Both Starr and Bri are very interesting characters, yet the latter is a more compelling one because of how flawed she is.
On the Come Up handles issues like social justice, misogyny and homophobia in the music industry, and poverty in very nuanced ways. The book takes place right after the events of The Hate U Give. As a result, some of the characters like Bri’s friend Malik are very adamant with speaking up when injustice occurs. However, the black and Latinx students’ frustrations with the school and how they do very little to change are very real and given plenty of weight. Bri wants to help, but she doesn’t want to relive the trauma of what happened to her. As for misogyny in the music industry, Bri experiences that a lot once Supreme – her dad’s former manager – becomes her own. For example, when she gets interviewed by DJ Hype, he asks her questions like if she wrote her own lyrics. Bri calls him out on it and even asks if he ever questioned a male rapper over his words. In a subplot, Bri’s gay friend Sonny talks to a mysterious person online, who turns out to be another rapper from their neighborhood (I called it for a good chunk of the novel). He insists on keeping their relationship on the down low, so it wouldn’t ruin his image. Then we come to the poverty aspect of the book. Bri and her family struggle to keep the lights on and food in the fridge. It even comes to a point that Bri’s mom Jay gives up school in order to get food stamps. Bri is understandably embarrassed when she and Jay come to a food giveaway because she doesn’t want people to know about their predicaments. However, Jay insists they go since they need the food to avoid starvation while trying to figure out a way to pay the bills.
Being a music person, I couldn’t help but notice how Bri was able to compose her lyrics. I love how she’s able to hear something and then go through all of the words that could possibly rhyme with it as well as come up (no pun intended) with other lines that flow well. That stream of consciousness mentality helps her to get her creative juices flowing. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s how Angie Thomas herself came up with lyrics when she was a teenage rapper. Yes, that’s really true!
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Bahni Turpin. I’ve mentioned her on this website before. Some of her credits include The Help, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Underground Railroad, and The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix. She has even recorded the audiobook for The Hate U Give , and I can see why Thomas wanted her to record for this one. Turpin is very engaging as a narrator. She makes Bri sound like a real teenager who’s determined to achieve success as a rapper despite all of the issues at home and school. With the supporting characters, Turpin distinguishes with great clarity. My personal favorite is Aunt Pooh – Bri’s aunt – who sounds like a female version of Lil Wayne. Also, she nails the rapping from the flow and to the tone. I could’ve read the physical book, but I’m glad one of the ladies from my book club recommended the audiobook because it brings the novel to a whole new level.
Overall, On the Come Up by Angie Thomas is a wonderful book. Bri has a lot of talent for rapping, and she behaves like a real teenager, even when doing incredibly stupid stuff. Despite her flaws, I was rooting for her all the way. It’s also a good successor to The Hate U Give. Both novels have memorable leads, but they are completely different characters. It also helps that it tackles issues like social justice, misogyny and homophobia in the music industry, and poverty in non-sugarcoated manners. I would recommend On the Come Up to those who loved The Hate U Give as well as to those who want to read about musicians (particularly rappers), teenage girls of color, and social justice. It’s such a great book, and I’m looking forward to the movie version whenever and wherever it comes out.
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