I've been looking forward to ON THE COME UP ever since I heard that Angie Thomas was writing a new book. THE HATE U GIVE was one of those life-changing books for me, in that it was a pitch-perfect book that came out at a time when the subject material was relevant and necessary, and delivered an emotionally-charged story about institutionalized racism, as well as the importance of movements like Black Lives Matter that shine a much-needed spotlight on racial injustice.
ON THE COME UP is a similar story in that it also features a girl in Garden Heights who comes from a low-income family and deals with gang violence and gang activity on a day-to-day basis. Bri's mother is a recovering drug addict and her aunt is in the local gang, the Garden Disciples. Her father was a famous up-and-coming rapper who was murdered. People make assumptions about her just because of the color of her skin and where she comes from, and a racially-targeted bag search that ends in violence inspires Bri to write a rap song that ends up going viral.
I really wanted to like this book, but it didn't have the same strength in writing that THE HATE U GIVE had. Starr was a compelling protagonist and it was a really emotional read. ON THE COME UP was emotionally distant, by comparison, and Bri was such an awful heroine. She made one terrible choice after another and treated her friends and family like garbage. I hated the way she talked to her mother, and how she called her mother by her first name with such a lack of respect. I hated the way she treated her friend, and how she made a move on her taken friend who was in a relationship. She also wrote a song with very vivid references to gang activity, which is fine, but then she tried to deny that that wasn't what the song was about when she was called on it. Um, what?
Here's the thing, ON THE COME UP was trying to tackle some weighty issues just like THE HATE U GIVE did. This book was about the hypocrisy of white people when it comes to guns (OK when white people have them, thuggish and scary when black people have them), cultural appropriation (white people listening to and consuming rap but not wanting to think about the deeper issues and sociocultural suffering and struggles endemic to the black community due to oppression and injustice), and, of course, institutionalized racism leading to the disenfranchisement, abuse, and even murders of black people over infractions that white people would get minor consequences for.
The issue with Bri and her school was not resolved in a satisfactory way. They gave her mother a job, sure, but that felt more like they were trying to buy the family's silence and not a moral turnaround. Bri didn't really advance as a character. She ran around doing and saying whatever she wanted and didn't want to take ownership for her actions or the consequences of her actions. At the end of the book, she's basically rewarded for acting like a total shit because of her raps, and the other problematic aspects of her behavior - getting involved in gang wars, siccing her aunt on a rival gang member despite knowing it could end up in murder, failing in school and treating her tests like they're unimportant, ghosting her friends and/or snapping in their faces, and bitching at her mom - are all basically ignored, because oh, she belatedly became part of a movement and then capitalized on it for financial gain and fame, isn't she a good person? Lmao, her friends basically did all the work getting that movement started, and in the beginning she treated them like trash for it. What in the ever-loving heck? Am I supposed to root for this girl? I mean, I get the fear of wanting to get involved against the same authority figures that oppress you and mistreat you, but letting her friends take the fall for her and then jumping on their shit was totally disgusting and I hated her for it. The writing in this book was a real step-down from THE HATE U GIVE, and seemed unpolished and clunky in comparison. Starr was such a great character, and I loved her so much. Bri was a brat, and the best moment in this book was when her mother gives her a real dressing down over her behavior. #TeamJay
Honestly, Jay(da) was the star of this book. I loved Bri's mom. She had so much to deal with, and some of her quotes in this book about racism and police brutality and inequality really reminded me of Starr. I almost wish that this was an adult book about parenting and that Jay(da) had been the heroine, because I was much more interested in hearing about her story than Bri's. Yes, the raps were great and had good flow, and I enjoyed them, but I hated that Bri wrote them because I hated Bri. Jay had to deal with lingering biases over her drug use (including her own daughter), despite being eight years sober. She's in college trying to better her education so she can get a good job, while taking care of two kids and dealing with her deceased husband's younger sister, who's a leader in a gang. The most emotional parts in this book all involved her, especially when she goes to Bri's school to speak up about the racist treatment of her ungrateful shit of a daughter. That packed a punch.
Huge disappointment. I was wondering why more of my friends hadn't reviewed this book already and I'm guessing maybe they either didn't like it and didn't want to say so, or they were leery about reading the follow-up book from a successful debut author without reading advance reviews. Well, I didn't like this book and I'm flummoxed at the people saying that this was better than THUG. It really wasn't. If anything, this reads like a debut novel, because of how unsteady it is on its own two legs.
I'm so bummed that I can't say great things about ON THE COME UP. :/
2 out of 5 stars