On the Come Up

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Book Review

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas is a stand-alone novel about Bri, the daughter of a murdered rap legend, who longs for rapping success.

Plot Summary

Bri’s father, Lawless, was killed before he could advance from underground rap legend to true international star. Bri has dreams of being a famous rapper like her father, but first she needs to do well in the rap battle at the Ring, a local hangout. In the battle, her opponent mentions her murdered father, which breaks Bri’s concentration and makes her lose the first round. She recovers and wins the next two rounds, making her the new rookie champion. Supreme, Lawless’ old manager, views Bri with interest.

The next day at school, Bri refuses to hand over her backpack to the security guards for a random search. The guards take offense and try to forcibly take her backpack. In the ensuing scuffle, the guards throw Bri to the ground and handcuff her. Her backpack contains contraband candy that she was selling at school against the rules, so she is suspended for three days.

In her frustration over the violence and humiliation of being thrown to the ground, Bri creates a rap single. Her Aunt Pooh, a drug dealer and member of the local gang known as the Garden Disciples, books some studio time for Bri but disappears on gang business before helping Bri make important decisions about the music. Stuck with no manager to assist her, Bri doesn’t release the single, entitled “On the Come Up.” When she lets her friends listen to the song, they are surprised that she references carrying guns and also seems to advocate violence against police officers. Bri argues that she’s only playing a role in the song, acting like an angry thug.

Bri’s daily life continues to be a struggle. Her friend Malik, on whom she had a crush, starts dating a new girl. There’s almost no food in her house, even though her mother and her older brother, Trey, work hard to pay the bills. They always seem to be without either heat or electricity. When Bri goes to a free food giveaway with her mom, she sees Supreme, who offers to be her manager. She is uncertain whether to accept or decline the offer.

For Christmas, Bri’s mom can’t afford presents, but she does give Bri an expensive diamond pendant necklace that used to belong to her father in his rap days. Bri proudly wears the chain, though she’s careful to hide it when walking around the neighborhood. She doesn’t want to be robbed. Aunt Pooh listens to Bri’s new song and is outraged that Bri references gun violence when she’s not even gang-affiliated, and also that she seems to diss a local gang known as the Crowns, the very gang believed to have shot her father.

On Supreme’s advice, Bri uploads “On the Come Up” to a streaming music service. The song gets huge amounts of attention, but when Bri goes back to the Ring to battle again, some Crowns start a verbal fight with Bri and Aunt Pooh, and a riot nearly breaks out. At school, the security guards who threw Bri on the ground are back at work. In anger over the guards’ reinstatement, students start chanting Bri’s violent song. Someone punches one of the guards, leading to an actual riot at school.

Bri’s mother is angry when she learns about the content of “On the Come Up,” especially now that parents in the city are blaming Bri’s song for the violence at her school. On her way home from her friend’s house, a Crown member points a gun at Bri and demands that she give him her father’s pendant necklace. After the robbery, Bri tells her Aunt Pooh what happened. Aunt Pooh disappears for a few days, leaving Bri to fear that she intends to murder the Crown. When Aunt Pooh returns to the neighborhood, a drug bust from the police leads to her arrest.

At Bri’s house, the electricity is turned off because they can’t pay the bills. In desperation, Bri agrees to let Supreme manage her career. He brings her to a fancy recording studio where the Caucasian executive speaks dismissively of Bri. Supreme also tells Bri that they won’t be recording songs that she has written. Instead, her raps will now be ghostwritten by someone else to match the violent “hoodrat” image the record label wants for Bri.

Life finally improves a bit. Bri’s mom gets a job, Aunt Pooh has a good lawyer to represent her in court and Bri’s mom announces that she, Trey and Bri will be moving in with their grandparents until their family is back on their feet. When it’s time for Bri to go to the Ring again, Supreme and his record exec friend expect her to perform the rap they have written for her.

Instead, she goes freestyle, talking about her real life and real beliefs, refusing to sell out. A week later, a famous musician shares her freestyle rap on Twitter and asks for a collaboration, which means that Bri’s career is finally taking off.

Christian Beliefs

Bri is steeped in Christian culture. Her mother works as a church secretary and plays praise music at home. They attend church together. Church people are frequently portrayed as judgmental and hypocritical.

Other Belief Systems

For Bri, rapping is almost spiritual.

Authority Roles

Bri’s mother, Jay, works hard to support her family and earn a social work degree, but she makes so little money that her family is still on the brink of poverty. When Bri was 5, her mother had a serious drug habit and left Bri and her older brother, Trey, to be raised by their grandparents for a while.

From that point on, Bri began calling her mother Jay instead of mom because she no longer seemed like a mother. Aunt Pooh deals drugs and is a member of the Garden Disciples, a local gang. She cares for Bri, but Jay is concerned about her influence.

Profanity & Violence

A lot of profanity is used, including a–, d–n, the f-word, h—, b–tard, b–ch and s—.

Bri is thrown to the ground by security guards. Later, students hit and punch the security guards. Bri is robbed, and her father’s necklace is taken. The Crowns try to start a fight with Bri and her aunt.

Sexual Content

Aunt Pooh is a lesbian. She and her girlfriend kiss.

Sonny, one of Bri’s best friends, is gay. This fact is casually accepted by his friends and family. He eventually starts dating Miles, whose father refuses to acknowledge his son’s gay identification. Bri and Malik kiss. Bri and Curtis, a classmate, kiss and fool around. Curtis places his hand under Bri’s shirt.

Discussion Topics

None.

Additional Comments

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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