Let Me Hear a Rhyme by Tiffany D. Jackson

Review by Jennifer Irvine

Katherine Tegan Books, HarperCollins Books, May 2019

384 pages, hardcover, $17.99 CAD, 978-0-06-284032-5

Ages 13+, Grades 8-12

Young Adult, Contemporary Realism, Historical Fiction

“Shut yo’ ass up! Quadir challenged. “Biggie was like Spider-Man or something?”

“Yeah! Well, except the part him being from Queens and all.”

“He was one of us,” Steph added with a shrug. “He looked out for his people. He was…home.”

The boys looked up through the trees at home. Brevoort. Towering brown buildings, a busy hub full of life.

“Yo, son, let me hear a rhyme or something…Out here all sad and shit.”

Steph smiled. “Aight, set it off.”

Jarrell smirked before covering his mouth, and started beatboxing. Quadir already bobbing his head.

It’s Brooklyn in the late nineties, when rap music can be heard reverberating out of ghetto blasters everywhere. Singer Lauryn Hill reigns supreme, and Jay-Z and Mariah Carey are just getting started on their monster careers. Snoop-Dogg—well before cooking with Martha Stewart—is a hard-core rapper. With the recent death of Notorious B.I.G., a homegrown New Yorker, beloved and accessible to his rap fans, his murder is an unfathomable blow to the Brevoort Housing Project. It’s also a reminder of how lethal the war between the East and West coast rappers has become.

Total 1990s immersion is the setting for the recent murder of teenager Steph Davis Jr., a budding rapper himself. His violent and sudden death leaves his fifteen-year-old step sister Jasmine and closest buddies Jarrell and Quadir with a grief larger than Steph’s love of Coney Island. They decide to form a plan to make him a famous rap star by pretending he is still alive. That and try to find out why Steph was murdered.

The youngest of a trio of main characters, Jasmine (aka Jazz) wears her hair up in two pom-poms and belts her Guess jeans so they sit low on her hips, much to her mother’s chagrin. She constantly has to remind Jarrell and Quadir that she is old enough and capable enough to help them with Steph’s posthumous rise to stardom. Jarrell is described as having “glowing dark skin, bowlegged, got deep wheezy voices, breathing mad like Darth Vader.” Quadir is an athlete and an A student, and has been accepted into a prestigious high school that will give him a chance to get into a good college—that is, if his family and friends can convince him to leave his life in Brevoort. And finally, the absent Steph, has “brown skin, tall, braids, and a scar on his cheek” remains a focal point throughout the novel. The reader is invited in to his world of music as well as his desire to help people escape the ghetto. Each character gets their own devoted chapters, in which they contribute to the complex dynamic from their point of view.

At first, I didn’t understand why Quadir had so much money, being a teenager and living in a housing project, but then it was revealed that he was dealing drugs and risking his whole dazzling future. Also, the trio discover so many boxes of CDs of Steph’s recorded rap music that it feels too much. It’s surprising that not even his closest friends knew about them. However, it’s a pivotal point because suddenly, Jazz, Quadir, and Jarrell have enough of Steph’s music to promote it and get it on the radio.

This is a story that doesn’t shy away from violence, drug-dealing, and the struggle to get out of poverty. It envelopes the reader in a blanket of profound grief and also love. Attempting to propel Steph’s music into the world is a perfect way for young people to grieve the death of a loved one in a positive and impactful manner.

JENNIFER IRVINE has grown fond of reading middle grade and YA books during her time in the BFA Creative Writing program. Her own writing began with memoir, but she is now exploring middle grade and speculative fiction.

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