On The Come Up

On The Come Up
Written by Angie Thomas
Contemporary, Fiction
448 Pages
Published February 5th 2019
Thank you to Walker Books Australia
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★★★☆
Sixteen year old Brianna wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. Or at least make it out of her neighbourhood one day. As the daughter of an underground rap legend who died before he hit big, Bri’s got big shoes to fill. But now that her mom has unexpectedly lost her job, food banks and shutoff notices are as much a part of Bri’s life as beats and rhymes. With bills piling up and homelessness staring her family down, Bri no longer just wants to make it. She has to make it.

On the Come Up is Angie Thomas’s homage to hip hop, the art that sparked her passion for storytelling and continues to inspire her to this day. It is the story of fighting for your dreams, even as the odds are stacked against you; of the struggle to become who you are and not who everyone expects you to be and of the desperate realities of poor and working class black families.
On The Come Up follows the narrative of sixteen year old Brianna Jackson, the princess of Garden Heights. Brianna is the daughter of Lawless, slain at the pinnacle of his music career. Brianna creates lyrics from her experiences, the death of her father, her mother dependant on narcotics, Brianna and older brother Trey abandoned on the doorstep of their grandparents, their mother withdrawing from society to overcome her addiction and now facilitates group counselling for recovering addicts.

Tensions are high in Garden Heights since a young black man was killed by police officers, the subsequent rioting has resulted in a heavy police presence throughout the suburb, including Midtown School of the Arts where Brianna attends school. Her mother wants Brianna to concentrate on her education but for Brianna, since the tender age of only ten years old, she's wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father and rap her to a better life for her mother and brother.

Brianna is a tenacious young woman, proud of her African American heritage and culture, of who is she and where she's from. Garden Heights. Readers will remember the Garden Heights community from Angie Thomas' debut novel The Hate U Give and although the two narratives do not converge, we're reintroduced to the Disciples, the local gang and the Crowns, a rival gang on the east side and those responsible for taking the life of Lawless. Brianna and her family live below the poverty line, working is a necessity to make ends meet. We're introduced to Brianna as their gas has been shut off and her mother is struggling to pay their rent, the cupboards are all but bare and her college graduate brother has returned home and now works in a small pizzeria and yet, there's little money to afford food never mind to replace Brianna's shoes.

The hardship the Jackson family are experiencing is harrowing so when Brianna's mother Jay loses her job, she has no other option but to quit night school and seek welfare, handouts and food stamps to survive. With winter fast approaching, the chill in the air is a reminder of why so many young people of Garden Heights turn to gang life. The companionship of family and making money to survive despite the odds, including Brianna's Aunt Pooh who begun running with the Disciples shortly after her brother was murdered.

Rapping is in Brianna's blood. Affectionately known as Lil' Law, Brianna is about to make her debut at the Ring, a local club known for it's amateur rap battles and star making potential. Think Eminem's 8 Mile. Through her lyrics, Brianna tells the story of being a young black woman in a world created for white people, about the assumptions made upon black communities, stereotyping and racial profiling. She raps about real world problems facing her community, drugs, violence and being all about that life. Who you run with and who you run from. After her success in the Ring, when she's roughed up at school by security guards and thrown to the floor, something has to give. While students begin to protest against the racial profiling of black and latinx students, Brianna begins penning her breakout track, On The Come Up.

Brianna Jackson refuses to become a stereotype based on assumptions. She is determine to rap about her experiences, she's a contender not a pretender. She comes up against a sexist and opportunistic industry where young artists are taken advantage of. Their image no longer their own as they are shaped and modelled into a product for consumers, told to play their part and luring often underprivileged young adults with gifts and the promise of a easier life for their families, not necessarily better.

No doubt readers will compare On The Come Up to The Hate U Give but where Starr Carter was finding her voice in a hostile environment fulled by revolution, Brianna demands to be heard, a beacon of hope within her community and for young black women wanting to thrive in the male dominated rap industry. I enjoyed the narrative but not Brianna herself. I understand the animosity of your only parent unable to care for her children and choosing their drug dependency but Brianna showed very little respect for her mother who fought her way back from addiction for her children. Brianna calls her mother by her first name and held her at arms length. I felt an incredible amount of sadness for her mother who is an inspiring woman in her own right. Understandably the experience has hardened Brianna but I felt she often treated her mother with undeserving disrespect while holding her Aunt Pooh, a gang member and drug dealer on a pedestal.

On The Come Up is a quiet novel, challenging stereotypes and the prejudiced faced by young black men and women in particular. How young black women are spoken over, how they fight to create safe spaces for themselves and their voices. Although I didn't like Brianna, I loved what she represented. A strong, young black woman on the cusp of great things without compromising who she is and what she stands for. 

18 comments

  1. I still can't believe I haven't read this one yet! I can completely understand why you didn't like Bri, but I'm happy her character did her job. That's an impressive feat.

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    1. Her story was one that will inspire young women to create spaces in male dominated spaces, especially creative spaces such as the music industry. One particular aspect I really admired about Brianna was her determination. It's a great read and I really enjoyed all the pop culture references.

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  2. I'm really interested in this one but yours is the first review I've read.
    I only saw the movie for The Hate You Give but I enjoyed it.

    Karen @ For What It's Worth

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    1. I haven't seen the film as yet but as far as the two books compare, The Hate You Give is a much more passionate and moving read. I just found Brianna quite frustrating with her inability to listen to others and believing she knew better.

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  3. I still need to read The Hate U Give, though I do own it, so hopefully soon. I'm curious about this one too. It does sound like Brianna can be a bit difficult to like, but there are definitely characters - and people - like that, so I'm glad that it didn't take much away from the overall book and story line.

    -Lauren
    www.shootingstarsmag.net

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    1. I'd recommend reading this one first actually Lauren to avoid disappointment. In comparison, this isn't nearly as great as her debut, it was lacking passion mostly and Brianna was unlikable as a main character. Still a great read nevertheless.

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  4. I still need to read this one. I'm sorry to hear that you didn't like the main character. That always makes it hard for me to enjoy a book so I'm curious to see what I think of her when I read it.

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    1. I'm curious too Suzanne and would love to see what you think of it. I think it was mainly her lack of respect for her mother, considering all she does for her. She's still punishing the woman for her former drug addiction. Her mother is such a brilliant woman and was one of my favourite characters.

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  5. Good review. I've still not motivated myself to pick that book back up from the 'I will get back to reading this eventually' pile. I struggled to connect with Brianna. I was hoping to connect with her more as the book went on but it's probably part of the reason I've not gone back to it yet. I do think it's one I will have to try and pick up again because I do want to read this but your review pretty much confirms that there are reasons I haven't picked this back up yet.

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    1. I found it really difficult to empathise with her, especially considering how she treated her mother, a woman who did what she thought was best for her children and returned when she was well and able to care for them again. She seemed to show little sympathy for her and referring to her mother as her first name as well. I'm wondering if On The Come Up might have been written first and intended to be her debut as it didn't feel as polished.

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  6. I’m scared to look at how long the library waitlist for this book is. The waitlist for The Hate U Give was the longest I’ve ever seen. Great review!

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

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    1. Perhaps they might be better prepared this time and have a few copies in hand. Hopefully you can get your hands on a copy soon!

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  7. I just finished this myself and have a review coming up. Good point about Brianna and how she treated her mother -- I think i thought of that as her emotional protection in a way until she found her way back to understanding her mother again.

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    1. I thought the same in the beginning but with the secrecy and not listening to the advice of those around her, it seemed more like Brianna was being disrespectful and punishing her mother for leaving. I still enjoyed it overall, I had just wanted to connect with Brianna and her narrative earlier.

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  8. that's such a challenge in life! I think she'll be a great rapper with all the life experiences. Great coming on up

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    1. It was a wonderful read Ailyn and one of the aspects I really enjoyed was Brianna's lyrics scattered throughout the narrative. It took On The Come Up to another level.

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  9. Oooo, this novel sounds amazing. I still haven't read The Hate U Give because I'm afraid of the hype. Like the 8 Mile comparison.

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    1. I'd recommend reading On The Come Up before The Hate U Give, only because this one feels like a debut. Still a great read but to compare protagonists, Starr Carter from The Hate U Give is brilliant while Brianna takes a while to warm to. Really looking forward to seeing what you think of both of these Vivien.

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