People who adored Angie Thomas’ first novel “The Hate U Give” — a blockbuster young-adult phenomenon that was riveting, timely and beautifully written — have been impatient for her follow-up.
They’re in luck, as is any reader who opens “On The Come Up” (Balzer + Bray, $18.99), a gripping story about 16-year-old Brianna, who fights for her artistic dreams while struggling to survive poverty and violence.
Bri was born to be a rapper — and not just because her father was Lawless, a legendary underground star from the fictional Garden projects, who was shot to death when Bri was a child. Now the bearer of his legacy, Bri carries the weight of his influence with uncertainty: Can she live up to high expectations while carving out her own place?
Flow, rhyme and wordplay course through Bri’s mind, whether she’s on the school bus or stepping into the spotlight at the Ring, a local freestyle battle where she first makes her name. Some of the most vibrant pages in the novel allow Thomas — once a teenage rapper herself — to show Bri’s artistic process in its thrilling inventiveness:
“Perfection. I can use that. Perfection, protection, election. Election — presidents. Presidents are leaders. Leader. Either. Ether, like that song where Nas went in on Jay-Z.”
But Bri doesn’t just want the dream of stardom for herself. She feels she needs it for her family — especially for her mother Jayda, who is free from drug addiction, striving to keep bills paid and food in the fridge.
Two other fraught influences on Bri are her Aunt Pooh, an unapologetic gang member who nonetheless protects Bri as a mentor, and Supreme, a producer who wants to help Bri achieve rap greatness through less-than-upfront means.
The central conflict arises when two racist security guards at Bri’s school throw her to the ground, assuming she’s a drug dealer. The incident is filmed, goes viral and ignites a social justice movement with Bri as the uneasy center. When she unleashes a brilliant cry of rage after the fact, different groups try to claim her song for their own purposes: White parents point to it as a sign of dangerous rebellion, and gang members use it as a call to arms.
How can Bri speak her truth and make her art in a world in which a young black person’s speech is policed and suppressed at every turn?
One way is through camaraderie and community. Raucous and funny scenes with friends and family depict Bri in her element: witty, combative and caring. One of the book’s great pleasures is Thomas’ portrait of the artist as a young woman, a fully rounded teenage character with crushes and romantic disappointments who suffers from a friend fallout and finds comfort in TV and junk food with her brother.
At times, the pace of the novel is uneven, veering from crisis to crisis without time to reflect and absorb. But Bri’s story is utterly compelling from first to last, and “On The Come Up” will more than satisfy ardent fans of “The Hate U Give.”