Angie Thomas’s first book, The Hate U Give, recently celebrated its 100th consecutive week at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list. It was a runaway and well-deserved success, a YA novel that handled the police shooting of an unarmed black teen with equal parts sincerity and warmth.
Thomas’s second book — On the Come Up, out this week — is well on its way to becoming just such a runaway success. It’s wise and witty, and it boasts Thomas’s characteristic ability to handle serious questions of systemic racism with a light and even joyous touch.
On the Come Up’s main character is 16-year-old Brianna, or Bri, a committed hip-hop head and aspiring rapper. Bri dreams of living up to the example of her dead father, an acclaimed underground rapper who was on the cusp of mainstream fame when he was killed by a gang.
She also dreams of providing for her family, who are only just barely able to get by on her mother’s church secretary salary and the wages her older brother Trey is able to scrape together at the local pizza place. (Trey, the family golden boy, is college-educated, and his inability to find good work despite his degree forms one of On the Come Up’s most affecting subplots.) The best way for her to do both, Bri figures, is to become a rapper herself.
She has the talent for it. Thomas shows off Bri’s freestyling skills convincingly, staying tight in her head as she improvises, so that we can see her cast around for the perfect rhyme.
“Manners. A lot of words rhyme with that if I deliver them right,” Bri muses mid-battle as she tries to come up with the best way to take down her opponent. “Cameras. Rappers. Pamper. Hammer — MC Hammer. Vanilla Ice. Hip-hop heads consider them pop stars, not real rappers. I can compare him to them.”
Even when Bri isn’t battling, she rhymes constantly inside her head, in a character tic that could feel grating in less assured hands. Here, it’s both endearing and a reminder of Bri’s bona fides as someone willing to put in the work for her craft.
But the people around Bri don’t see her that way. Bri is one of the few black students at an arts magnet school, and there, she is seen as a threat.
After she’s violently targeted by a school security guard, Bri turns the incident into a song that sets her on the path to stardom. She thinks it will finally be her chance to put her truth out into the world. But instead, she finds that for the outside world watching her, everything she does becomes evidence that she’s a violent thug and probably a drug dealer. The song she writes to deconstruct stereotypes, so that she can show how unfair it is that authority figures automatically view her as someone dangerous, becomes twisted into proof that she is actually dangerous.
Most insidious here are the people around Bri who push her to try to embrace her new image for the money. “You know what white kids in the suburbs love? Listening to shit that scares their parents,” her sleazy manager advises her. “You scare the hell outta their folks, they’ll flock to you like birds.” In order to achieve her goals, Bri has to navigate her way through underminers and bad faith from all directions, including from people she believes to be on her side.
Although the stakes are high, Bri’s voice is funny and frank, with frequent musings on cute boys, “fly kicks,” and Tweety Bird, whom Bri considers “the love of my life.” As a result, On the Come Up is earnest and warm-hearted, a careful examination of social issues that’s built around an immensely endearing main character. It’s likely to assure Thomas’s continued and well-deserved dominance on the best-seller lists.