Book Review: ON THE COME UP (2019) by Angie Thomas
Updated: Jan 6
On the Come Up, Angie Thomas' sophomore effort, is a contemporary YA story about a teen from rapper from Garden Heights who's on the rise. Similar to The Hate U Give (2017), Thomas reiterates themes of speaking out against racial injustice, staying loyal to family, and forgiving those who aren't.
Sixteen-year-old Brianna Jackson is waiting for her big break in the ring. When she gets her chance, she smokes her opponent and goes viral for her rapping chops. Then, when she's falsely accused of selling drugs at school, Bri gets thrown on the ground by the security guards. It doesn't escape her notice that these guards target black and brown kids in general, so Bri writes a song that wins her even more attention on social media. Unfortunately, it also generates her negative attention from the Garden Heights Crowns for its mention of gun and gang violence (the same gang that got her dad killed twelve years prior). Bri's mom, brother, and friends worry for her safety. Her dad's old manager, Supreme, says that, if she wants to get her "come up," she better follow the script--play the role of the thug, regardless of the lyrics. But are words really just words?
The setting. Like Thomas' debut, On the Come Up is set in Garden Heights, a poor, predominately black neighborhood that's riddled with gangs and violence. You really get a sense of what it's like to live someplace where you're constantly looking over your shoulder.
The voice. Bri sure does have a way of talking--a way that imitates the culture of her time and place. All the pop culture references are fun touches, as well.
The humor. This book wouldn't be categorized as a rom-com by any means, but there were definitely some exchanges between Bri and her friends that made me burst out laughing. These moments broke up the otherwise high-stress plot line with some comic relief.
The relationship dynamics. Bri has complicated relationships with both her mom (who temporary left Bri during her drug addiction years prior), and her friend Malik (whom she has a crush on). Scenes where Bri interacts with either of these characters are especially engaging. Will Bri ever respect her mom enough to stop calling her Jay? Will Malik ever reciprocate her feelings?
The antagonist. Supreme holds his own as Bri's greatest adversary. Interestingly, he's also one of her greatest encouragers. The best antagonists, after all, are those the protagonist doesn't realize she's fighting. Without Supreme, Bri wouldn't have had as many opportunities to share her talent with the world; he's the one who helped get that come up, after all.
Unbeknownst to Bri, however, Supreme also threatens Bri's self-concept and identity. He wants her to play the part of the violent thug who mouths off at anyone who crosses her. While Bri unabashedly calls people out for their crap, is she really just a bratty girl from the hood? Supreme gave her dad the same script and it got him murdered, so Bri must make an important decision about who she really is.
Unsurprisingly, Thomas created yet another vivid cast of characters, all with their own quirks, characteristics, and motivations. Jay and Trey (Bri's mom and brother) stand out to me for their good-heartedness and self-sacrifice. Even though Bri often doubts it, they both love her so much.
This brings us to our protagonist, Bri. I liked her in the beginning. She's sassy, outspoken, hotheaded, and confrontational. As expected, these traits get her in trouble more than once throughout the book. Unfortunately, it gets a little tiresome after a while. The plot progresses in this cycle: something happens that upsets Bri, Bri speaks out about it, Bri gets in trouble for speaking out, Bri gets frustrated that people react negatively to her outspokenness, Bri says something else without thinking, which frustrates everyone yet again, and so on.
It never ends. And Bri never learns how to hold her tongue. She never learns self control or how to pick her battles until the very end, but this progression in her character is unconvincing, anti-climactic, and a little random; everything that happens prior to the climax tells us Bri gets her way no matter what. So why does it matter that she finally chooses differently at the end? And why?
In other words, the consequences of Bri's hotheadedness never cause her to lose anything permanently. They're threatened, all right. If she choses the role of the violent girl from the ghetto, no one will know who she really is. She'll lose the support of the people who are telling her not to follow Supreme's lead (Jay, Trey, Malik, Aunt Pooh--all whom Bri consistently treats like trash and takes for granted). The ending would have been far more satisfying had Bri been forced to give something up. Instead, she comes to an understanding of her true identity (a daughter, a sister, a young woman with talent and promise) without having first sacrificed anything, such as her newfound fame. By the end, she wins everything and loses nearly nothing.
I already addressed a bit of this in the previous section, but going further, I thought the plot was decent. This book's definitely more character than plot-driven, so there were parts that seemed to drag a little and others that seemed repetitive. What I do appreciate, though, is how Thomas handled the subplots, particularly with Aunt Pooh selling drugs and Sonny trying to uncover the identity of the guy he's been talking to online. I thought these were nice, little detours that made the overall plot more dynamic.
Not to mention Bri's budding relationship with Curtis.
Overall rating (out of 5):
* * *