On the Come Up

posted in: Good Reads: Fiction, Race | 0

Of all the great opening lines of literature–“Call me Ismael,” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”–Angie Thomas’s in On the Come Up may well be the greatest: “I might have to kill somebody tonight.” [3] She got my attention. Sheltered white guy that I am, I was shocked, and more than a little concerned.

Then puzzled, as I learn the first-person protagonist, Bri, is taking a practice AP English exam as she ponders her potentially violent evening. Thomas strung me along for the rest of the chapter, revealing the true object of Bri’s anxiety only obliquely, in dribs and drabs. Bri is waiting for a call inviting her to rap in the Ring. The answer to the question raised in the book’s first line comes only in the chapter’s last line when Hype, the Ring master, asks, “Are you ready to kill it?” [18]

Thomas’s follow-up to The Hate U Give is no less “engrossing,” “vital,” “fresh,” and “important” [back cover] than her acclaimed debut novel. Like it, On the Come Up is written as much for white readers as for black. For me, a sheltered, middle-aged white guy, it provided an accessible education into inner-city black youth culture in the 21st century. Accessible, because Thomas authentically straddles both worlds, the black inner-city and the middle class suburbs. Thomas humanizes “ghetto” (her word) denizens for suburbanite readers who, when they think of them at all, often do so with a horrified pity. At the same time, inner-city readers who may have internalized society’s deprecations will be empowered by following characters who suffer and overcome problems much like their own. Vital, indeed.

All manner of black inner-city culture gets air time in Thomas’s book, including fast food (Popeye’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Church’s: “Popkenchurch” [17]), parenting styles (“Dear black parents everywhere, [‘Because I said so,’]’s not a good enough answer…” [158]), and stereotyping within the community (“As bougie as Grandma wants to act, according to Grandaddy she’s just ‘one foot out the backwoods and one toe from ignorant'” [121]).

We get the dysfunctional side, too, of course. Gang rivalry and gang violence, which haunt Bri most directly (though still at a distance) through her Aunt Pooh. The lure of drug money and the effects of incarceration on families: Bri’s friend Curtis’s mother, Bri’s Aunt Pooh again. The ills of drug abuse, which almost cost Bri her mother in events that precede the action in the book and which makes her chances for employment during the book elusive. Unemployment leads to poverty leads to food stamps and trips to the food pantry. Thomas takes us inside her characters to feel the hit in self-respect such an event can inflict. Seeing the pity in the eyes of the charity worker “makes [Bri] want to scream.” [162]

But black culture, inner-city or not, is part of a wider American culture, and aspects of what might be thought white culture is given prominence, too: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Marvel Comics, including, of course, The Black Panther (“Wakanda forever!”). The street-toughened but highly sympathetic Aunt Pooh calls this “nerd shit,” but nerdy  is cool for Bri and her pals, Sonny and Malik. References to Jeopardy, Forrest Gump, and Mario Kart also pepper their dialogue. Growing up in the Hood–more precisely, the Garden–doesn’t mean a young person is either ignorant of or indifferent to these broader cultural icons.

The power of social media in 21st century youth culture also gets its due. On the verge of uploading her first recorded rap, Bri is paralyzed with doubt: “To me, it’s like putting nudes online. Okay, maybe that’s a stretch, but it’s like putting part of me out there that I can’t hide again.” [114] I imagine plenty of her readers have felt the same angst. For those who haven’t, Thomas may well be cautioning them to give these moments more judicious thought. Later, a riled up Bri unthinkingly vents her spleen online. She wakes up the next morning with what she calls an Instagram hangover: “Oh, shit. Did I say that?” [268]

Of course, Thomas is not writing to translate youth culture to teachers and parents. She is writing for the teens themselves, especially when teenage friendships take center stage. Thomas establishes Bri’s special relationship with Sonny and Malik, only to show it buckling under the stresses that are the book’s plot drivers. Bri suffers estrangement but is then freed to explore a romantic relationship with Curtis. (“Is this flirting? I think this is flirting.” [228]) All the interpersonal maneuvering must be catnip for Thomas’s teen readers. Her feel-good ending (not a critique!) includes the reuniting of “the Unholy Trinity.” But Thomas has her character voice a realism that her teen readers can benefit from. She has Bri say, “I’d like to say that ten, twenty, thirty years from now, me, Sonny, and Malik will be as tight as we’ve always been, but that could be a lie. We’re changing in different ways, and we’ll keep changing.” [404]

* * *

For a middle-aged white guy like me, On the Come Up provided an illuminating window into the foreign culture of inner-city youth. It also gave me an appreciation for the art of hip-hop that I had not had before. In addition to depicting the ring battles of freestyle rappers, the deal-making with agents and producers, the hero-worship on the street, Thomas shows how rap is done, shows the mental calisthenics of a talented rapper, Bri, as she prepares to respond to her opponent in the Ring:

…Perfection. I can use that. Perfection, protections, election. Election–presidents. Presidents are leaders. Leader. Either. Ether, like where that song where Nas went in on Jay-Z.
I need to get something in there about his name, too. Milez. Miles per hour. Speed. Light speed. Then I need to end with something about myself….

When I read the finished product, the improvised rap, saw how those preliminary sketches were pieced together into a unified rap, I was impressed. So that’s how they do it! And my appreciation for the rapper’s skill jumped.

In her lengthy acknowledgments, Thomas begins by thanking “my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” and ends by acknowledging her debt to hip-hop itself. With an explanation: “The world criticizes you often, sometimes rightfully so. Hell, sometimes, I’m one of your biggest critics. But I do it from a place of love.” [452] On the Come Up is avowedly the author’s paean to hip-hop–but one that does not shy away from critique. More precisely, it explores the tension and ambivalence embedded in the quotation above.

Do rappers glorify violence, or does it merely use the material of the inner-city reality, as ugly as it might be for those on the outside? Composing what will become her first hit rap, Bri draws on the anger she feels after being roughly handled by school security guards. Lines like, “This Glock, yeah, I cock it and aim it,” and “Strapped like backpacks, I pull triggers” [110-112] are more provocative than she anticipates, and the reactions they stir become the main driving force of the book’s plot. Her mom is predictably incensed, but even her rap mentor Aunt Pooh is put off. She tells Bri to take the gun-toting “shit” out of her rap: “You not ’bout that life!” [183] Bri protests that the words are not to be taken literally: “The whole point is about playing into stereotype.”  But the tension remains unresolved until the penultimate chapter when Bri is able to rap,

But they blame hip-hop. Yet we just speak on what we see.
But I’m gon’ speak on what I see and never claim it to be me. [441]

Is rap a crude money-making machine, forcing rappers to sell their artistic souls while white businessmen exploit them for big money? Or, is it a powerful expression of the otherwise marginalized and a proven means to escape intergenerational urban poverty? Thomas elicits the questions while leaving the answers for the reader to decide. Bri, in her fervor to make her come up, to earn real money to help her family, inadvertently distances herself from her friends. Malik chides her for it: “Lately, you only care about money. Money isn’t everything, Bri.” [403] Maybe so, but for Bri, whose family has fallen into actual poverty, it’s a whole hell of a lot. As she wrestles with the implications of what may or may not be a Faustian bargain. Her oh-so-smooth agent, Supreme, introduces her to another client who spells out the calculus clearly. Says Dee-Nice, “[Supreme] changed my life. I’m able to take care of my whole family now.” [256]

When Supreme brings her to a fancy, downtown office to meet a record executive, her come up appears assured. But when the exec asks her to rap someone else’s work, Bri storms out in protest. Reluctantly, she allows Supreme to talk her back, despite herself and despite his hard-nosed rhetoric. “You’re in the music business now. Key word, business,” he says, and later: “What? You scared you won’t look ‘real’ rapping this shit?” [382] The most important question hanging over Bri the entire book: Can she come up in rap without losing her identity in the process, either to cynical music industry execs or a misinformed public. With the execs in the audience in the climactic scene at the Ring, we see Bri find her voice and break free:

I’m a genius, I’m a star, call me all of the above,
But you’ll never call sellout, and you’ll never call me thug. [440]

* * *

Let me say that I didn’t always like Thomas’s character. I appreciated her voice, but I didn’t always find her actions to be sympathetic. “‘Aggressive’ is used to describe me a lot,” she says early on. [66] While this is not be the first word I would choose, I’m basically in the camp of her white teachers, without, perhaps, being as over-reactive as they apparently were. She’s willful, impulsive, argumentative. In fact, immediately before telling us about the descriptor above she had verbally jumped at her principal, “Bullshit! [The security guards] always harass us!”

Thomas wants us to like her protagonist, obviously, but she also wants us to understand how easily an outspoken (black) girll like her can be misunderstood, especially by adults in authority. To help us get perspective she has her older brother, Trey, not just her mother, talking her back from her most impulsive actions. Trey has an undergraduate degree in psychology (for all the good it does him trying to get a professional job), and plays psychologist to Bri’s patient, diagnosing her, affectionately, with oppositional defiant disorder:

“You tend to be argumentative, defiant, you speak impulsively, you get irritable easily–“
“I do not! You take that shit back!”
“Like I said, ODD.”

Even her best friend Malik is affronted when she accuses him of making a “fuckboy move.” [289] Even her doting grandfather says, “Li’l Bit, you jump to conclusions so fast, you gon’ pull a muscle.” [411]

In fact, Bri suffers no psychological pathology. She is merely a teenager, quick to see injustice outside herself, slow to examine her role in events. “They always harass us!” and “They’re always on my case at that school” [69] are typical teenage complaints, even if hers are provoked bby apparent racism. But there is no racial component when she and her crew (read: Aunt Pooh) are thrown out of the Ring for flashing firearms. Bri’s words are the classic self-centered protestations of a teenager: “But I haven’t done shit! Yet y’all kicking me out because of what my crew did? That’s some bullshit!” [209]

Young readers, feeling Bri’s pain, will no doubt take her side less critically than I. Yet as the rising action steepens its pitch, Thomas helps them to appreciate other sides of the issue. This is especially the case when she reveals Bri’s vulnerable side. In a verbal tangle with her brother, Bri finally breaks down: “I’m tired of not knowing what’s gonna happen next. I’m tired of being scared. I’m tired!” She is finally willing to admit that her “aggressive” style may be to blame after all: “I’ve lost Aunt Pooh. I may be losing my mom. I lost my cool so bad that I’ve lost more than I realize. I’m lost. I’m so lost that I’m exhausted from trying to find my way.” Ever the psychotherapist, Trey boosts her spirits with a well-timed word of kindness–calling her a “gift”–while teaching her that “admitting that you’re weak is one of the strongest things you can do.” [359-362]

Bri’s sense of grievance comes out most curiously in her reaction to the criticism of her rap. “It’s just a song,” she protests when challenged on its provocativeness. [291] “It must be nice to panic over some goddamn words,” she responds to a white mother’s critical Instagram post. “Because that’s all they are. Words.” [265] The irony is stark. Here is a girl committed to an art form built on the power of words, investing all her efforts to make it as a performer of rap songs, saying her work is “only words,” “just a song.” My inclination was to respond critically to the ostensible inconsistency of these utterances. Gradually, I came to see them as all in the artistry of Thomas’s storytelling.

For, not much later, Bri is confronted with the power of her own words in real time, and she is appropriately cowed. Without considering the consequences, she makes an accusation that enrages her Aunt Pooh and provokes her to take violent action against the perpetrator. The six loose and provocative words: “He pointed it [the gun] in my face.” Pooh’s reaction is more than Bri bargained for. She tries to walk the words back, but Pooh will have none of it. Now Bri fears her aunt will get killed or jailed for killing someone else. Why did she use those words? What were her motivations? Self-doubt encroaches. Brashness ebbs. Bri even wonders if Emily, the self-righteous, possibly racist Instagram post-er, might have had a point: “Maybe my words are dangerous.” [302]

Another comeuppance (not come up): little Jojo, street urchin, all of nine years old, recites her words back at her, adding for emphasis, “I told them you be blasting niggas, Bri.” For all her earlier bravado, now Bri’s “stomach churns” at the (negative) power of her words. Yet she makes a start toward redemption in her final rap in the climactic chapter. As the spotlight focuses and the audience quiets, Bri’s thoughts realizees the awesome reponsibility that comes with being a rapper: “I close my eyes. There’s plenty of words waiting inside me. Words I hope Jojo hears and understands.” [440]

Words have power, for good and for ill, and not always within the artist’s control, especially in today’s digital age of virality and context manipulation. As a rapper (with a temper) she learns this lesson the hard way. When the aptly-named DJ, Hype, pushed her buttons on air, Bri made a very public scene. When Supreme later called her a genius for her display, Bri is understanndably nonplussed.  “You played the ratchet hood rat role,” he says by way of explanation. These few words have the power to cause Bri to stagger.

Rachet hood rat.
Thousands of people just heard me act like that. Millions more might see the video. They won’t care that my life is a mess and I had every right to be mad. They’ll just see an angry black girl from the ghetto, acting like they expected me to act. [354-355]

In this work of fiction, Thomas shows how a young girl, battered by violence and poverty and normal teenage angst, steers between the Scylla of selling out and the Charybdis of playing to stereotype to make her come up in  hip-hop and in life. At story’s end, we are confident that, no matter what comes, Bri will be her own person.


Thomas, Angie. On the Come Up. New York: Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2019.




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