Author: Angie Thomas
Publisher: Walker Books, contemporary young adult fiction
In the world of popular entertainment, great marketing is probably just as important as great talent. Many famous stars have a cleverly-crafted persona they set up for their fans, who gleefully buy into this image, and by extension, buy their products as well.
In the young adult novel On The Come Up, 16-year-old Brianna Jackson, or Bri, finds this out the hard way. She’s a young black girl with a talent for rap, just like her father, who was also an aspiring musician before his life was tragically cut short.
After experiencing an unfair racial profiling incident at her school, Bri deals with her anger by recording a rap track filled with charged lines such as “strapped like backpacks, I pull triggers/all these clips on my hips change my figure”. It’s a fiery rap, questioning why she’s stereotyped as a “hoodlum” just because of her race and background. Her listeners, however, ignore that part of her song, choosing instead to fixate on its images of violence and rebellion.
Soon, Bri is infamous as an angry, dangerous, gangsta rapper. And, she learns, there’s money to be made from this dark persona. The problem is, that’s not quite her. But why turn down an easy way to earn money and be a success? Especially when your family is struggling to get by....
On The Come Up was a highly anticipated second novel from Angie Thomas, a former teen rapper herself. Her first novel, The Hate U Give, was something of a phenomenon: It hit the No.1 spot on The New York Times young adult bestseller list upon its debut in 2017, where it remained for over 50 weeks. It won the Waterstone Children’s Book Prize, was nominated for the 2018 US Carnegie Medal, and was made into a feature film in 2018. Phew.
The Hate U Give is, therefore, a tough book to follow but, wow, does On The Come Up succeed! While it does cover similar ground (both books discuss contemporary issues facing the African-American community as seen through the eyes of a brave young girl), the latter feels very different from Thomas’s debut, but, thankfully, maintains the same level of quality.
One of the best things of On The Come Up is how honest and authentic it feels. The novel really grounds itself in reality, with Bri finding herself in very realistic scenarios almost every reader will be able to connect with. While hip-hop fans in particular will enjoy this book with it’s many references to real life performers, there’s enough other stuff in it to also appeal to people who can’t tell Cardi B from Chance the Rapper. Thomas also nails Bri’s voice, making her sound like a believable 16-year-old without getting too cringe-worthy as adults writing about teens can be sometimes.
Other characters are also extremely well-drawn; each of them is flawed, memorable, and most importantly, feel very real. There’s Trey, Bri’s gentle older brother who has a college education but struggles to get a job; Supreme, who used to manage Bri’s father, and who offers her that quick path to success; colourful Aunt Pooh, who’s knee-deep in the gangster life. And perhaps most memorably, Jayda, Bri’s former drug-addicted mother who has to make some tough choices as she struggles to bring up her children.
This novel tackles a whole range of tough topics, everything from gang violence and racial prejudices to cultural appropriation, misogyny and homophobia. It’s incredible how many issues there are to discuss in On The Come Up, and Thomas does a great job of condensing them all into a readable, entertaining form. To add to that, there are some parts that are very funny, especially Bri’s interactions with her friends Sonny and Malik.
If On The Come Up has any flaws, they are rather minor. It has many contemporary references (to the movie Black Panther particularly!) that may make the story feel dated for readers in the future. There are also a few side plots that feel a little unnecessary; for example, the one involving the identity of Sonny’s online love interests. But I felt that too only made the book’s world feel richer and more alive.
All in all, Thomas’s second novel proves that she’s more than just on the come up – she’s already arrived. This is a wonderful book full of wonderful characters that dares to ask tough questions.
A movie based on the book is already in development, and it should definitely be one to look out for. Can you imagine the awesome hip-hop soundtrack it will have?
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