On the Come Up takes place about a year after Khalil was shot in an a mixture of racism, manufactured fear, and a rigged system that’s still rigged. It takes place at the same place, but now we’re following the view of Brianna Jackson, who I can tell has always loved her name. One is because it’s the same last name as the legendary Michael Jackson, and two because you can’t spell “Brilliant” without spelling “Bri”. She lives with her mother, who she calls as Jay because there was a segment of her life where Jay was so heavy in drugs that she couldn’t take care of her nor Bri’s sister, Taz. This has given Bri more affection for her grandparents and her Aunt Pooh. But something well-established is Bri’s utter love for rap. Her late father was a sensational rapper and performer, who was brutally killed not by police but by a gang that still roams in the bushes. There’s trouble right now; the economy of Garden Heights is at a sharp decline with Jay caught in it and Taz has been forced into a minimum wage job to help the family despite looking for a job with his university experience behind him and coming up unfairly empty. Bri feels with her ability to make up rhymes on the dot, and bring out the spirit of people in general, she might be able to make a difference too and hit the stage when an opportunity comes by that she’s accepted into.
My basic synopsis is this is not as much of a window-smashing screech as Thomas’ first novel, but it on its very own defines and contracts the entire focus and spirit of rap, while adding a similar yet refreshingly new viewpoint rebelling the virus of loathsome fear. The Hate U Give was a story so unarguably important, so horrifying and so truthful yet memorable, fun and human-based, and I remember the chills I had putting it down, so replicating it was always going to be tough. And here we have a new viewpoint in the world of Garden Heights, a new big situation that wasn’t as acknowledged as before. At first the big problem is not at first racism, but money troubles, and then these two things combine with further insight into forced drug dealers and the pity from others that they hate seeing.
It’s funny; financial troubles is a story element that is hard to mess up and easy to be invested in; it’s all too familiar, yet I don’t usually see the issue take the high road in books like it does here. One of my favourite adult novels, Riding Lessons, brings dangers of having to sell the family horse farm, and there was a history behind it I deeply cared about but I also got the impression moving into an apartment was possible. Here I felt at any moment the family would find themselves putting up tents and cramming sleeping bags, water bottles and cereal boxes into them.
Jay and Bri’s disagreement, as well as Aunt Pooh and Bri’s disagreement, both on the subject of focusing less on school and more on rap, and trying to hit the big bucks while the attention is fresh, both land on the subject of not much money, and I found this very helpful for readers to think about; Bri feels she has the potential to save the family, but Jay feels as the mother it’s her responsibility, and school is a more surefire way to make proper coin in the years to come (though Jay might feel she’s lying to herself, seeing how Taz is making out at their pizza place after getting a degree in Psychology). Thomas is very good at coming up with gripping storylines and being responsible with them.
Also, little fact about me: I’ve never been a rap fan. Growing up, I often found it loud, profanic to the point of being uncomfortably awkward, not having much replay value, and stereotype stapling. But after reading this, I’m all of a sudden kind of a fan now, especially the art of improvisational rap. I’m terrible at improvising on the spot, but Bri has quite the talent for it, and Thomas writes the situations and the improvised lyrics in a way that feels they were improvised but coming from a legitimately powerful and creative mind and mouth. Thomas is a rapper as well, I hear. In my review of The Hate U Give, I said the slang and the realism could’ve only came from someone who spoke from the heart and from personal merit. She gets the job done once again!
One little thing I had a problem with is Aunt Pooh. When I hear that name, I don’t think of a 26-year-old little sister, a drug dealer and a rocking gal covered in tattoos, especially when her name and the name of Bri’s mom, Jay, aren’t believably related names. I pictured her as laid back, stubborn (though she certainly is in this book) and twee. Later on, we learn her real name and we learn Pooh was a name Bri always saw her as, and I have a grandfather I have a special name for too, so it ended up erasing that flaw. I’m just saying it was sometimes distracting. I also felt a situation Bri ends up with is not concluded as solidly and completely as I was hoping, whereas I felt Thomas’ last book left no stones untouched.
However, by the end I got the feeling in my fibers this book really accomplished something, for both the book world and me personally. It gave me the same feeling I felt after finishing Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25 all those years ago: both hope and a desire to be a hero. An element I love in fiction is when the protagonist manages to work hard and garner the courage and do whatever they can to help further the good of their friends, family, and/or community, and/or world. Both The Hate U Give and On The Come Up never falter with what they want to say about the world and the world ought to be thankful for that.