When one of the members of my occasional book group suggested our next book be the hip-hop novel Explicit Content by Black Artemis I inwardly cringed. Not only was I worried the novel would be poorly written, but I was also worried that it would be some sort of gang-shooting woman-hating vulgarity-ridden story. I was pleasantly surprised.
The story is about Cassandra Rivers, aka Sabrina Steelo, and Leila Aponte, aka Fatal Beauty. Cassandra is a smart, well-educated African-American woman raised by her single mother. Leila is a Latina who grew up in the projects and the foster care system. Cassie and Leila have been friends since school and both want nothing more than to make it in the music industry. With Cassie’s smart rhymes and Leila’s look and delivery, they are slowly gathering a group of fans in the clubs. At the same time they are saving whatever money they can to make and produce their own album.
After their best club performance yet, Leila is approached by G Double D, the owner and producer of the controversial record label Explicit Content. He wants to sign her and only her to his label. He wants one woman, not two. Leila, seeing her chance at fame and a record of her own, agrees. Of course this causes a rift between her and Cassie.
Cassie can’t go home. When she refused to go to college and pursue her dream instead, her mother told her that she could not support her. So Cassie heads to Darnell’s place. Darnell has been creating the beats for Cassie and Leila’s songs and recording their tracks in his basement recording studio. Darnell lets her stay. Cassie decides since Leila betrayed her she will work hard at her job at Tower Records, save money and make her own solo album as an independent artist.
But of course things don’t go as planned. Cassie too eventually ends up at Explicit Content where she is blinded by her ambition just as Leila was. Soon she discovers, however, that things at the label are not what they appear to be.
That’s as much as I’ll tell you. Suffice it to say, the plot thickens with twists and turns I didn’t see coming. But just because I was pleasantly surprised that it was a good story doesn’t mean the book is without its flaws.
The writing is solid. Even though the book is filled with hip-hop slang, this decidedly un-hip-hop girl was never at a loss for what was going on. Cassie is a strong female character and frequently criticizes the way women are treated in rap, particularly the ever popular gangsta rap. She refuses to write degrading rhymes and refuses to degrade herself. Cassie is so mature at times it becomes difficult to accept that she is only about 20 years old. The same goes for Leila who, while a bit more worldly than Cassie, manages to be mistress and girlfriend to three men at once who pay for her apartment, buy he expensive clothes and generally give her whatever she wants. She is a bad girl who wants to be good and manages it with varying success under Cassie’s influence. I appreciate that the book focuses on their friendship and the strength that two women can give each other. Sometimes though it strains credulity.
Then there is the ending. The final two chapters are nothing but narrative wrap up of everything that has built up over the course of the preceding story. The author has done a good job at building up the suspense and then all of a sudden the air is let out of the balloon and here she is summing it all up. She ties everything up neatly in a tidy little package, the fate of not a single character is left hanging in the balance. I like a book with a conclusive ending, but a conclusive ending doesn’t mean I have to know everything. When I closed the book after the final page I was not left thinking about whether or not Cassie and Leila would make it. Or if Cassie and her mom reconciled their differences. There was nothing left to wonder about and having nothing to wonder about I quickly stopped thinking about the characters and the book.
Don’t let my nit picking keep you from reading the book though. Overall it is well done. As far as being good book group material, well I’d say it is more suited to a summer beach read.