‘On the Come Up’ Review: Battle Rap’s Next Big Thing?

If you’ve seen “8 Mile” or the more recent cinematic delight “The Forty-Year-Old Version” you already know that in a movie with battle rap at the center, the would-be MC with something to prove always chokes the first time we see them battle in public. “On the Come Up,” the new movie based on the Angie Thomas novel of the same name and directed by Sanaa Lathan, is no different.

Brianna Jackson (Jamila C. Gray), nicknamed Bri and known as Lil’ Law on the mike, freezes in the face of an opponent and spends the rest of the film chasing her titular come up.

The movie seems geared to teens in the way that it over explains events and leaves little room for subtext. Yet at the same time, Kay Oyegun’s script often feels out of touch with the way real teenagers actually behave. Bri and her friends Sonny (Miles Gutierrez-Riley) and Malik (Michael Cooper Jr.) seem to always know the most mature things to do and say. And the predictable narrative arc, the happenstance lighting from scene-to-scene and Lathan’s minimalist take on the material all adds up to something you might watch once and promptly forget about.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s performance as Bri’s Aunt and manager Pooh stands out from a crowded ensemble cast of supporting players whose many background stories distract us from connecting with Bri and her family as much as we might like. But even Randolph — and Lathan, who also delivers a solid performance as Bri’s formerly drug-addicted mother Jay — can’t overcome a clunky script that bites off more from the novel than it can properly chew in under two hours.

The real missed opportunity here is making full use of the battle rap scenes that form the spine of the story. Gray as Bri delivers the expletive-free rhymes penned by the real-life rapper Rapsody well enough, but the canned applause baked into the scenes often doesn’t ring true. Bri’s rhymes sound more like spoken word poetry than the no-holds-barred battle rap that the film is continuously saying she, the daughter of a revered slain rapper, has in her DNA.

Yet even with its flaws, the film, by bringing a character like Bri into the cadre of battle rap, is a welcome update to the male bravado types we’re used to seeing dominate the mike. And the lyrics feature a steady stream of word bending metaphors worth savoring:

In other words, turn on the closed captions.

On the Come Up
Rated PG-13 for violence and adult language. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. In theaters and streaming on Paramount+.

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