After her debut novel, “The Hate U Give,” shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list — where it has remained for almost two years — and landed a movie deal, Angie Thomas faced a high bar for her next book.
Her sophomore novel, “On the Come Up,” returns to fictional Garden Heights, but it tells a grittier tale that highlights the narrow path that many in the neighborhood face trying to climb out of poverty.
Sixteen-year-old Bri has just won her debut rap battle at a local hip-hop venue, the Ring. The daughter of an underground hip-hop star, Lawless, who was killed in a gang shooting, she hopes her breakout moment will lead to a recording contract.
At home, bills are piling up after her mom, Jay, a recovering drug addict, loses her job as a church secretary. Older brother Trey has graduated from college — gotten out of Garden Heights — but is back home working a minimum-wage job.
As the family spirals deeper into debt, with a landlord threatening eviction, and a visit to a food shelf, Jay wants Bri to focus on school over rapping or finding a job.
But tensions have reached a tipping point at school, where Bri and other black and Latino students feel targeted by the white staff and school security guards.
After a violent encounter with a guard, Bri pours out her frustration in a rap clapback that quickly goes viral. It draws cheers from her neighbors who are hungry for someone from “the Garden” to make good; fresh attention from Supreme, who used to manage Bri’s dad; and an online petition by a white mom to take the song down.
This tension, between black communities struggling with poverty, music that reflects their lives and attempts to silence that message, lies at the heart of “On the Come Up.”
“Folks love to blame hip-hop,” Supreme tells Bri, reminding her of earlier hip-hop legends, such as Tupac Shakur and N.W.A., who sparked censorship battles with their lyrics. “Guess that’s easier than looking at the real problems … Anyone who’s ever had something to say on the mic, they’ve come at them ’bout how they said it.”
Despite her love of hip-hop, Thomas doesn’t give a free pass to the music industry. Supreme, who lives in the suburbs, wants Bri to ride her growing reputation as a “ratchet hood rat” to land a deal. A DJ who could make Bri’s reputation, and the recording executive who dangle a deal, both assume she’ll play along.
And Bri’s lyrics draw attention from gang members who aren’t interested in reading between the lines.
Thomas is a rich chronicler of the love that binds and the poverty that frays black communities. She slows down the story to detail the skills it takes to be a battle rapper, the judgmental nature of black congregations and even a stretch of trash-talking over a game of Uno when the power goes out at Bri’s home.
While Bri struggles between standing up for herself and the narrow bandwidth she’s given by the larger, white world, she also teeters between hope for her future and the even deeper poverty she sees when she meets kids in the neighborhood where her lesbian Aunt Pooh, a drug dealer, lives.
Readers hoping for the truth-bomb impact of “The Hate U Give” won’t find the same scope here. “On the Come Up” is a more individual, and personal, tale.
The story gains momentum, and emotional depth, as students take their frustrations to a public forum about school policing, and Bri begins to see how her words ripple through the young people around her.
“Auntie Pooh introduced me to hip-hop, Nas told me the world was mine, and I believed it could be,” she reflects toward the end of the book.
Laced with a deep love of hip-hop and community, “On the Come Up,” lets one poetry-loving teenager find her path.
Trisha Collopy is a copy editor at the Star Tribune.
On the Come Up
By: Angie Thomas.
Publisher: Harper Collins/Balzer + Bray, 447 pages, $18.99.