I’m hardline New Historicist when it comes to critiquing hip hop. Hip hop is neither revolutionary nor corporate. Hip hop is a tool, and like any tool it can be wielded for ends fair or foul. One can appreciate hip hop without context, but to truly understand hip hop one needs to delve behind the lyrics into the context of the rapper’s life. Jay-Z’s Decoded is a great example of this: reading through his lyrics alongside his contextual explanations of what’s happening is eye-opening for a white guy like me who is from a small Canadian town and hasn’t known any of the struggles Jay-Z has. Instead of dismissing something like hip hop as lacking any significant meaning, we should instead recognize that there is meaning, just meaning different from what we might comprehend given our experiences.
One of my first thoughts on reading this book? Wow, did Angie Thomas ever do a good job coming up with lyrics for Bri! The cover copy for On the Come Up explains that Thomas was once an aspiring rapper like Bri, and it shows in the lyrics she creates. There is nothing half-baked about the rhymes, about the potency of the words and how they flow. I’m very curious about how the audiobook of this sounds!
Hip hop and hip-hop culture pervade this book, obviously, and Thomas demonstrates both her deep affinity for and her deep knowledge of these things. You don’t need a deep understanding of them, however, to enjoy the book. Having only a middling understanding myself, it was like riding on the surface of a much deeper lake and occasionally getting to peer down through the clear water to the sand beneath: there is a lot going on here, a great conversation. Through Bri’s enthusiastic exploration of a potential rap career, Thomas examines how hip hop has evolved in the 21st century. Whereas someone like Jay-Z came of age in the 1980s projects of New York, Bri is 16 in 2018 in the fictional neighbourhood of Garden Heights. She’s posting her rap on Dat Cloud and sharing things on social media. It’s a different kind of game—yet in some ways, it isn’t.
There’s still the tension between being yourself and fronting a persona that will earn you a bigger reputation. As Bri gains notoriety, she faces pressure from all sides to answer one burning question: who are you? In this way, Thomas marries her love letter to hip hop with the ever-important motif in a YA novel of the demands that come from all directions for a teenager’s time, attention, and belief. Bri’s grandparents want her to be their idea of a Good Black Girl. Bri’s mother has other ideas, and her aunt still other ones. Supreme wants to be manager to a version of Bri who “plays the role” white consumers of hip hop will bankroll. And Bri’s friends have their own opinions of who Bri might be.
On the Come Up depicts the messiness of being a sixteen-year-old girl, a sixteen-year-old Black girl from a poor family, with near-heartbreaking depth and relief. Especially toward the end of the book, I was getting so many feelings; I kept having to put it down, to pause and reflect on what Bri was experiencing. She doesn’t always make the right decision—like any teenager, her view of the world is simultaneously somewhat myopic yet paradoxically far more open-minded than many adults’ views. Thomas illustrates how Bri can easily do the wrong thing for the right reasons, as well as the right thing for the wrong reasons. How she can mess up, badly, because she’s still just a kid in some ways yet also very nearly a young woman, and it’s that awful liminal existence of middle adolescence that is so terribly thrilling and frightening at the same time.
Reading this book is like standing on the edge of a nearly-broken mirror. At any moment it might shatter into a million pieces, fracturing Bri’s life into so many possible futures. She could go to college, get a degree, get a job, start a family. She could get involved in a criminal life, in gang colours and warfare. She could become a rapper, blow up into a huge success—or fizzle out and fall back on another job, another path. This is the core of On the Come Up’s personal narrative for Bri: we like to say that every young person is full of potential, but what that really means is that every young person is a life as yet unwritten. It’s a life that could be very many paths but will eventually be one particular path, and every day, every moment, the choices they make and we make contribute to the path they take.
Zooming out, then of course we see the wider social commentary Thomas wants us to consider. As I said earlier, this is definitely a love letter to hip hop. Bri lives and breathes for hip hop; for her, it is a tool of survival in a world that is vehemently misogynoir. Yet Thomas is not afraid to critique the media she loves, to offer up her analyses of where rap and hip hop need to step up, to acknowledge their flaws, to be better. The same goes for Bri herself, of course, and for the thorny way in which she navigates the problematic minefield of her medium of choice. On the Come Up tackles police brutality in the form of the over-policing of Black and brown bodies in our schools. Most saliently, Thomas juxtaposes public condemnation of Black gun ownership, stereotyped as gang violence, with public approval for white gun ownership, stereotyped as hunting and freedom. Indeed, almost every page of this book, every encounter Bri has with an authority figure, screams for us to remember that if she were a white girl, she would receive markedly different—and probably better—treatment.
This is apparently my 1500th review published to Goodreads. Cool. It’s entirely a coincidence that On the Come Up is that review, but I’m pleased that if I’m going to mark such an arbitrary, round number I’m doing it with such a notable book. Once again, I want to remark on the dearth of popular reviews here on Goodreads for this book by Black, and especially Black and female, reviewers. For a book that is literally about giving voice to young Black women, it’s unfortunate that these very same voices seem to be missing from the conversation around this book, at least on this platform.
It’s great that my fellow white reviewers are championing this book, of course! We must do this, and we must be careful about how we do it. You’re going to see some people experience discomfort at discussing this book, disclaim their disconnection from Bri’s experiences. I admit to feeling some discomfort myself: how do I critique something that I don’t know that much about? They’ll remark on how great a book this is for Black teenagers, how it’s fantastic to have this representation, to have a book Black teens can see themselves in. They will mean well. And yes, it is true that more representation is great.
Make no mistake: On the Come Up is definitely a book for everyone. If we position it and others like it as being “for Black readers” by dint of merely having a Black protagonist living in a predominantly Black neighbourhood, we’re positioning books with white protagonists as some kind of “default” experience. We Other Blackness once again. And I am much more uncomfortable doing that than I am discussing and dissecting a book that is certainly one possible depiction of a Black person’s experience in the United States. It’s true that I’m not in a great position to judge the veracity of Thomas’ use of hip hop, of her depiction of gang dynamics, and so on. But I also never went to an elite boarding school, nor have I ever lived in a conveniently-siloed dystopia that sorts me into a house on my 16th birthday—and we sure spend a lot of time opining on that.
On the Come Up is an emotionally-charged, deep, and moving book about family and friendship and trying to do what you love. It is a very long book, and there are moments when it drags. There are unresolved issues that I wish Thomas had resolved more, such as Bri and Pooh’s relationship, or what happens between Bri and Curtis. The ending in general is somewhat rushed, with everything getting wrapped up very quickly and sometimes off-handedly (but, to be fair, I was also rushing to finish the last 7 pages before I had to get back to my class, so that might be on me). Yet these issues seem so minor when set next to my enjoyment of and experience with this book. Thomas makes Bri come alive, and our world is a better place for having this story in it.