‘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 battle rap movie at the center, the would-be MC with something to prove always chokes the first fight. On the Come Up, the new film based on Angie Thomas’ novel of the same name and directed by Sana Lathan, is no different.

Briana Jackson (Jamila S. Gray), nicknamed Bri and known as Lil’ Law on the mic, freezes in the face of an opponent and spends the rest of the film pursuing her titular idea.

The film seems aimed at teenagers in the way it explains the events and leaves little room for subtext. Yet at the same time, Kay Oyegun’s script often seems out of touch with how real teenagers actually behave. Bree and her friends Sonny (Miles Gutierrez-Reilly) and Malik (Michael Cooper Jr.) always seem to know the most mature things to do and say. And the predictable narrative arc, the haphazard lighting from scene to scene, and Lathan’s minimalist take on the material all add up to something you can watch once and immediately forget.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s performance as Bri’s aunt and manager Pooh stands out from the crowded cast of supporting players, whose many backstories take us away from connecting with Bri and her family as much as we’d like. But even Randolph—and Lathan, who also delivers a solid performance as BJ’s drug-addicted ex-mother—can’t overcome the clunky script, which bites off more of the novel than it can properly chew in less than two hours.

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

Still, even with its flaws, the film, by bringing a character like Bri into the battle rap scene, is a welcome update to the types of male bravado we’re used to seeing dominate the mic. And the lyrics contain a steady stream of metaphors worth savoring:

Cranes in the sky
I might be a little sister
He said I might be like Bey’s little sister
He’s up against a bigger guy, but this fight is only going to escalate
Get her up, like Solange, watch me get up
To the place at the table.

In other words, turn on closed captioning.

On Exit
Rated PG-13 for violence and mature language. Duration: 1 hour 55 minutes. In theaters and streaming on Paramount+.