“When I was little I used to stand in front of mirrors with hairbrushes and imagine crowds chanting my name. But I don’t think I could have ever imagined this feeling.”
On the Come Up follows sixteen-year-old Bri, who wants to be one of the Greatest Rappers of All Time, as she navigates a lot of tough issues in her own life and fights to follow her dreams.
Her late father, who was an underground rap sensation, left big shoes to fill and Bri isn’t sure that they fit her. Her mother, who tries so hard, just lost her job and can’t get food stamps without dropping out of school. Bri dreams of not only being able to make it big, but also to provide for her family.
After she’s persecuted at school by a security guard, Bri turns her fury into a song and gets the chance to put her truth into the world. What she finds is that not everyone in the world likes what you have to say, or that she’s the one saying it, and that they make decisions about who she is because of it. Between trying to battle the stereotypes being placed on her, the pressure to embrace a new image that doesn’t fit, and navigating her way through both good and horrible advice, Bri manages to still create something astounding: herself. (And some badass music.)
I already loved Angie Thomas from her debut novel THUG (The Hate You Give) and I only love her writing more now than I did before. On the Come Up is a new book, a different book, from its predecessor but a hit all the same. I loved so many things about On the Come Up that it’s hard to name them all.
Bri was such a relatable character and I loved her voice! She’s not the easiest to love, and I think that’s why I liked her so much. She’s human and authentic, especially for a teen. She’s moody, angry, and impulsive sometimes, but also loving, protective, and strong. She expresses herself without any apology and I both enjoyed reading her character and aspire to be more like that some days.
Another aspect of this book that I loved was how Thomas portrayed Bri’s family life. Her brother is an interesting and strong character for her to lean on, and Bri’s mother was an entirely empathetic character to me. I wanted her, and her family, to succeed so badly! Bri learns a lot about her mom throughout the book which I enjoyed watching unfold, especially with how human and real her discoveries were. She’s always known that her mom is a recovered addict and yet she starts to see that its a struggle her mother has to fight daily. She sees her mother give up her school when its the only way to qualify for food stamps and realizes just how many sacrifices she has made to take care of them. At the end they both see each other in a new and different light, and I loved watching that transformation through Bri’s eyes.
Like THUG, her debut novel, Thomas is able to speak to a lot of important truths in this book. I felt Bri’s pain and anger every time her family had to scrape for bills or her school security guards targeted black and latinx students or her aunt got arrested. But then again— Bri would probably hate that I just said all that. She suffers no pity or sympathy. She takes all of her fear and fury and love and channels into her music, which was a phenomenal piece of this beautiful story. I love how she turned to her music every time she needed to be heard. Bri’s rhymes are poetry and truth, and unapologetically herself.
Thomas’ examination of the double standards and various pitfalls for women, especially a young black woman, in the rap industry (and the world) also felt vital to this story. After Bri releases her song, she quickly finds out that people who don’t know her are making assumptions about her being dangerous and irreverent because of her age, lyrics, and skin color. She’s targeted by the Crowns (a local gang) and by the media who vilify her and her song. She goes on to release a video for the song, demonstrating that her lyrics about guns and rage against authority are in response to a personal persecution in a trend of persecution among people like her. She tries to make her message clear, but it only brings her more hate from outside. Thomas does a wonderful job of examining the hypocrisy of a white journalist arguing against rap being “unsafe for kids” because of lyrics about guns and violence, without trying to understand or support the communities in which there are actual children who need that safety. It felt important that Thomas wrote about Bri’s struggles to say certain things in her lyrics that are never questioned when men are rapping, but questioned for her all the time. It felt important that Thomas, and Bri, used this platform to not just talk about important issues but to express how these struggles made them feel and celebrate the people who fight them every day.
On the Come Up was insightful, full of heart, and unafraid. It’s a wonderful story about a girl so many of us can relate to fighting hard to follow her dreams even when the odds are against her. It’s a story about how freedom of speech is not always free, depending on who you are. It’s a story about music and how it can connect us to new and deeper parts of ourselves. It’s a story about family and love and community. And most of all it is an ode, a love letter, to hip hop. I enjoyed every word.
“Gift. One word, one syllable. I don’t know if it rhymes with anything because it’s a word I never thought could be used when it comes to me.“