On The Come Up by Angie Thomas Review

Hey Everyone! I’m sorry I’ve been quiet the last few days, my mental health was suffering so I took a step back from the internet for a bit. I’m feeling better now though and I hope you’re all still doing okay.

‘On The Come Up’ by Angie Thomas is a YA contemporary novel that focuses on themes of racial profiling, over policing and systemic racism. It currently has an average rating of 4.3 on Goodreads and I have awarded it 4 stars.

The story follows Bri, a young sixteen year old who wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. She’s the daughter of a late underground rap legend, and she feels like she has a lot to live up to. But with her mum unexpectedly losing her job, her brother stuck in a dead-end job, their family receiving shut-off notices and visiting food banks Bri’s life isn’t just made of beats and rhymes. With everything going on Bri feels like she has to make it even if she loses herself in the process.

“Unarmed and dangerous, but America, you made us, only time we famous is when we die and you blame us.”

Between this and ‘The Hate U Give’ Angie Thomas is quickly asserting herself as the ‘queen’ of YA contemporary literature, and I’m sure she could dominate the YA literary landscape if she ever chose to write within a number of other genres such as fantasy, sci-fi or dystopian. ‘On The Come Up’ is a great coming of age story and covers a whole breath of commentary very well, I about all of the characters and really enjoyed how this was written, however I did have a few problems with this that I think are more down to me than the actual book or narrative.

The story mainly follows Bri, a young sixteen year old girl who has the weight of the world on her shoulders, she’s trying to please her family whilst she’s fighting to stay adrift in a high-achieving school and lift her family out of poverty by starting her own rap career. For these reasons she’s immediately likeable to the reader, as she doesn’t lay down and accept anything bad that comes her way – she fights against it. She can be a difficult character to like at times however, she’s impulsive, rude and can be standoffish but no more so than how every teenager can be. Thomas uses this to paint a portrait of how black women are treated in modern society, they are seen as ‘aggressive’ often when they are behaving no differently from how most would behave in any given situation. We see that when Bri rolls her eyes she is ‘aggressive’, and when given the reason behind it it makes the reader question if any other teenager would react differently in that situation, and the answer is probably not. But Bri is more than this, she’s quick witted and fun, she’s the kind of teenager she wish you could have been with her flaws and all.

The book also has a fantastic cast of secondary characters. I, in particular, enjoyed Bri’s family members and their dynamic. Jay, Bri’s mum, is a recovering drug addict and was a brilliant character who was so emotive and strong – she was easily one of my favourites. I thought her story was handled well, and it was interesting to see how her past and her addiction impacted not only herself and her future, but her relationship with her children, yet there was a sense of hope to her character and story. Jay was a great embodiment of recovery because whilst still not ignoring what addiction can do to a family and person, her character’s message was ultimately one of love and hope. But I also enjoyed reading about the other members of Bri’s family including Aunt Pooh, who offered a window into a life Bri didn’t know a lot about, even though she thought she did. Aunt Pooh showed the harsh reality of what it can be like living and growing up in a poor neighbourhood, and Thomas provided stark and honest commentary on gang violence and social economic disparities through her character.

Similarly to ‘The Hate U Give’ Thomas’ commentary on racism in the US hits the reader hard. This also focuses on the relationship between black communities and the police in America, but I believe this is a deeper dive look into those relationships by also exploring economic factors that are tied to systemic racism, but also racial profiling. Systemic racism is a huge topic in this novel as Thomas explores how racial minorities are often forced to live in poorer communities and therefore their schools receive less funding, and how some people turn to crime just to pay their bills, therefore leading to a cycle in which no one can escape. Whilst Thomas doesn’t particularly explore this in extreme depth it is explored to a reasonable degree, and it is enough to make the reader understand what struggles people in these communities can face.

The over-arching theme of the novel however is prejudice as a whole, Bri constantly faces prejudice not only from white people through racial profiling, being labelled as ‘ratchet’ or being defined by racist stereotypes, but black people also expected her to play into these prejudices. She constantly faces prejudice and discrimination in school, her community and the music industry, but she is not the only character in this novel to face prejudice, there’s a wider discussion of the prejudice towards recovering addicts and members of the LGBTQ+ community as well. Thomas takes the time to build a narrative on prejudice and it’s done beautifully, she makes you feel for all the characters whist still showing that hope is always there.

Thomas’ writing impresses me as for both this book and ‘The Hate U Give’, she has been able to address a wide range of social issues without feeling like any of them are shoehorned in, or aren’t given the right amount of time and attention. As an author she manages to seamlessly weave and connect these issues in a way many of us still struggle to do in real life, and somehow she is able to address and focus on all of them at once – it’s an incredible talent, and not one that should be underestimated.

I did at times find it hard to connect with the narrative as it focuses heavily on rap music and the underground hip-hop scene (I’m so out of touch I’m not even sure if I sound like a seventy year old talking about this). There are verses in the prose and we do encounter ‘rap battles’, and whilst I wasn’t particularly interested in this and I can’t tell you how well-written it was, it was even clear to me how the lyrics Bri was rapping were meant to be a metaphor encasing the whole plot of the book. I imagine I would have appreciated this more if I enjoyed rap, but this a problem down to me and my tastes, not down to Thomas’ writing. Although, the inclusion of rap and the culture surrounding the genre fed into the larger narrative of prejudice and discrimination in the book, and it was slotted into the narrative in a way that felt like it fit – Thomas wasn’t just trying to squeeze in another brownie point social issue to talk about.

Another thing that I didn’t enjoy as much was the ongoing references to ‘Stars Wars’ and other cultural media within the book, I personally don’t like these kind of references as I think it can age a text prematurely – which is a shame because this has the potential to be read for a long time to come. My other gripe usually with cultural references made by characters in books is it’s often done in place of any real character building, however that wasn’t the case in this novel; I knew who Bri was with and without the ‘Stars Wars’ references.

Overall this is another fantastic novel from Thomas, and she’s quickly establishing herself to be a name never to be forgotten within the YA literature landscape – and that is no mean feat. I highly recommend this to anyone who loved ‘The Hate U Give’, and I recommend it to all of you reading this whether or not you think this interests you, it’s fantastic.

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