What is this about?: Bri is going to make it big as a rapper — she has to in order to help her mother and her brother keep a roof over their heads. But being a rapper, succeeding at it means giving the audiences what they want, and that might not be who Bri actually is.
What else is this about?: Family, about Bri, her mother and brother sticking together, looking out for one another and surviving their world.
Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. Or at least make it out of her neighborhood 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 is the story of Bri, a 16 year old girl navigating high school, a crush on one of her best friends, a relationship with a different guy that actually might be what she needs instead. Throw in her insane talent as a rapper and the problems at home — and at school and as you can imagine she’s being pulled in a many different directions — but never once does Angie Thomas let any plot line stray.
The result a tightly written story, filled with emotion that leaps off the pages and Bri — who you will fall in love with, along with her flaws.
While writing this review, I realised how much I admired Bri – there is so much going on in her world, so much that could weigh her down. Her family is struggling to make ends meet, and she wants to help them — and the only way she can think to help is to make it as a rapper.
She struggles with the idea of being true to herself versus the idea of making it as a rapper as at the heart of her story is the desire to help her mother and her brother, because her talent that could get her a record deal and noticed by all the right people.
Jay, her mother, is a recovering addict, 8 years clean now. She loves her kids and will do anything for them — and the guilt of leaving them behind years before when she was addicted drives much of that. What I loved about Jay is that Thomas showed it’s still hard for her — she can still put on a brave face for her kids, but there are times, she needs her space, and the time to put herself back together. Bri knows this, but that doesn’t mean she’ll worry any less.
Trey, her brother, has less of a presence in this that I thought, but no less of an impact. This is about family and Trey who works at a pizzeria, postponing grad school because he knows his family needs him.
Her father, Law, is dead but steadily grows in importance in this story. Bri doesn’t remember him much but her talent as a rapper means a part of him is part of her. And it’s his reputation that follows her as she enters the Ring, takes on interviews and his former manager as her career flourishes. But it’s also the gangs in her neighbourhood that remember him, and set their sights on her when her career hits the airwaves.
Then there’s her Aunt Pooh, a fierce character (and addict) to whom Bri turns for support when she begins her first steps into showcasing her talents. Pooh’s addiction makes Bri fear for her, but never once does she doubt Pooh’s support.
Bri’s family is flawed and has made mistakes, and still make them, but never once do you doubt the love that binds them together and buoys Bri.
School, racism and her BFFs
At the same time that all of the above begins to happen, Bri is assaulted in school by two guards on the pretense that she is dealing drugs (when in reality, it’s candy). Bri’s assault brings the racism of the guards to the fore, and students being to rally behind this event, using it to call attention to the broader issues of racism at the school.
But, Bri is hesitant to step forward and to become the centre of attention this way. This reminded me a little of The Hate U Give, though obviously Starr and Bri are different characters entirely. it feels a little like this is the foundation on which Thomas builds how things are changing for Bri — her best friends since they were kids — Sonny and Malik — have their own lives, their own issues and the way things have changed for them gives Bri pause, and makes her miss how things used to be.
But things — and people change. And that isn’t a bad thing.
On the Come Up is a complex coming of age story, and what I’ve touched on here is really just the tip of the iceberg. This is the kind of story that draws you in with some utterly wonderful characterisation, and keeps you engrossed to the end with its heart — and Bri. Always, it comes back to Bri.