A funny thing about Roxanne Roxanne, the new Roxanne Shanté biopic that went up on Netflix last week: The movie goes through the entire career arc that most music biopics go through, and for the entire thing, its hero still has braces on her teeth. So: The precocious talent finds her voice in the midst of rubble, impressing everyone around her but never imagining that music will get her out of her neighborhood. Braces. She has the breakthrough moment, recording the song that everyone knows. Braces. She hears herself on the radio for the first time. Braces. She gets too big too fast, with the world throwing temptations at her that she’s not ready to deal with yet. Braces. She goes through a dark period, scraping the depths of human misery. Braces. And then, redemption, and she only just got her braces off. (That’s a spoiler. Roxanne Shanté’s teeth eventually get straight enough that she doesn’t need braces anymore. Sorry for ruining the movie.)
N.W.A is one thing. Biggie and Tupac are one thing, too. There are a few rap stories that have been told so many times that, to watch them in movie form, it’s almost like you’re seeing a Disney movie about a fairy tale. Maybe there will be a few details you never heard before, or maybe a few points will make you think slightly differently about a subject. Mostly, though, you’re there for the weird satisfaction that comes from seeing a story that you’ve always known played out onscreen. In that way, it’s not that much different from seeing a superhero movie. (I’ve got this vague, unformed theory that rappers and pro wrestlers are the closest thing we’ve got in real life to superheroes, and that that’s why I like rap and wrestling so much.)
The rap biopic is a young form. Basically, before Roxanne Roxanne, it was three movies: Straight Outta Compton (which is pretty good), Notorious (which is OK), and All Eyez On Me (which is bad enough that I never finished watching it). There have been other things that vaguely qualify. There were made-for-VH1 movies about MC Hammer and TLC. There were 8 Mile and Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, lightly fictionalized self-mythologization jobs that starred the rappers whose stories they sort of told. (There have also been a ton of low-budget varieties of that same version, Master P’s straight-to-video underground smash I’m Bout It chief among them.) But those three are the big ones, and they’re all about massive, legendary, larger-than-life artists.
Roxanne Roxanne is something else. It’s about a rapper who made her big impact when she was just 14, and whose career was basically over by the time she was old enough to drink. Shanté was a teenager in the Queensbridge housing projects when the legendary producer Marley Marl, who lived in her projects, got her to record an answer song to the UTFO track “Roxanne, Roxanne.” Over the same beat as “Roxanne Roxanne,” she played the character of Roxanne — it wasn’t really her name — and blasted the group, thus pioneering the still-beginning art of battle-rap. In the movie, Shanté makes “Roxanne’s Revenge” during a quick 10-minute break from doing laundry and then forgets about it until people tell her she’s on the radio. I don’t know if the recording session really went like that, but music biopics should always go for the fantastical print-the-legend story.
That’s a great, fascinating moment, but it’s not exactly what you might expect to be biopic fodder. Shanté’s career was nearly over by 1989, when she finally got around to releasing an album, and it was fully over by the mid-’90s. So Shanté didn’t have some vast, legendary career. And the few things about it that fans really know aren’t really in the movie. Shanté’s career was mostly dominated by her beef with the Brooklyn group UTFO, who barely figure into the movie at all. The group found another young female rapper, who called herself the Real Roxanne and who released her own single, dissing Shanté. That’s not in the movie. Sparky D, another young female rapper who released another Shanté-dissing song, is in the movie, but she’s a very peripheral character; she’s nice to Shanté at a critical moment. This isn’t a movie that really cares about telling us all the story beats that we already know.
There are a few fun rap-nerd moments in the movie. A guy in the background turns out to be good at beatboxing and backs up Shanté onstage; that’s Biz Markie. An extremely young Nas makes a couple of quick cameos. (He’s played by the youngest of the kids from The Get Down, the now-cancelled rap-mythologizing Netflix show that Nas executive produced, and he doesn’t look anything like Nas.) The Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz makes a quick appearance as a lawyer; he might be the only white person with a speaking role in the whole movie. Marley Marl, a contender for the greatest rap producer of all time, is mostly treated as an antagonist; he’s the guy who gets jealous when Shanté gets too much attention and who promptly quits their tour. The score comes from the RZA, but it’s so non-intrusive that I didn’t really ever notice it during the movie.
But Roxanne Roxanne isn’t really a movie about rap. It’s a movie about a little kid growing up in desperate circumstances, trying to make it out, however she can. Rap might be one route to get there, but she doesn’t take it seriously, and it doesn’t really get her anywhere anyway. The things that really matter in the movie are the relationships. Shanté’s mother is an intense, controlling, volatile, ultimately loving figure; she spends much of the movie happily playing the villain. Nia Long plays her, channeling a real righteous contempt and cutting an imposing figure. And as Shanté’s imposing and abusive much-older boyfriend, Mahershala Ali comes across as being positively scary. Ali, an Oscar winner for Moonlight and a secretly very good rapper, is a true charmer in real life, but he absolutely turns on the coldness for this movie. These are the main characters in Shanté’s story, not MC Shan or whoever.
Roxanne Roxanne is a good movie, but it’s good from an indie-movie perspective more than from a rap-biopic perspective. Part of me wondered whether director and screenwriter Michael Larnell just wanted to make a serious movie about a young black girl growing up in poverty but needed to make it about a rapper so that it could get made. As Shanté, first-time actress Chanté Adams carries the movie, and she barely has to rap. All of this is, I think, a good thing — both for Netflix, which has been releasing a lot of really shitty movies lately, and for the rap biopic itself. Roxanne Roxanne tells the story of someone who was, on some level, an important rap figure, but it’s not a story that the world already knows. I want more of this. I want more movies about peripheral rappers, rappers who maybe only made one or two hits and then faded back into obscurity. Another thing rappers have in common with pro wrestlers: Every last one of them has a fascinating story. Let’s see some more of those.
1. BlocBoy JB – “Rover 2.0″ (Feat. 21 Savage)
BlocBoy JB is getting a ton of viral attention because it’s so much fun to watch him dance. Which is awesome. More people should be famous for dancing. But his music is slow, unflappable, hard-as-hell Southern street-rap, delivered with energy and confidence, and that’s great, too. In the video, 21 Savage is conspicuously motionless. I wonder if BlocBoy makes him nervous.
2. G Herbo – “Who Run It”
Drake heard G Herbo freestyling over the hard-rumbling Three 6 Mafia classic for maybe 30 seconds and then demanded that he make a whole song out of it. Drake did us a favor.
3. Don Q – “Words Of Wisdom” (Feat. Pusha T)
Uh oh, I think Pusha T’s heating up again. Everyone else clear out and let him work.
4. Yhung T.O. – “Misunderstood”
It didn’t take too long for Yhung T.O. to be identified as SOB x RBE’s big potential breakout star. I’d rather see them keep growing together as a group, but if T.O. is going to keep making songs that sound like Swae Lee doing hyphy blues, I’ll cope.
5. Young M.A – “Praktice”
Have we already reached the point, as a society, where Allen Iverson’s “we talkin’ about practice” press-conference speech is better-remembered than game one of the 2001 Finals, or the time he crossed Jordan over? And if so, is that a bad thing?
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
— png papi (@GregNoire) March 26, 2018