Love Beats Rhymes: Cliche Beats Feeling, by Alexander Miller
I was under the impression that Love Beats Rhymes was a film about artistic expression through the lens of a woman’s struggle to advance her rapping career by discovering the world of poetry. It turns out that a movie about the artistic pursuit, made by, and starring accomplished artists fails to connect with anything meaningful in telling a lazily-realized narrative that is flattened by the deafening roar of its self-sabotaged thesis and self-conscious delivery. You’d think that a film starring Azealia Banks, Common, and directed by the RZA would have some collective input to lend a sense of substance to the proceedings but everyone seems content to let mediocrity prevail.
Love Beats Rhymes starts out with a rap battle. Azealia rises to the stage, her character Coco melts the microphone (just like cones of ice cream). I see a Method Man cameo and a director credit to RZA; all promising prospects right out the gate. So there’s Azealia, dropping bars, slaying an opponent in battle, being a badass, no-nonsense woman, with talent – are we flashing forward to her character’s ascension in her career? No, she and her crew catch the eye of a producer, and in a “twist” of fate Coco and her mother make the concession that she has to hit the books if chasing her dream of being a rapper is her true calling. This leads to an academic realization (and the biggest crux of the film’s downfall). Coco has to take a poetry class. And this creates a conflict
Did I miss something? Have we not embraced rap as an art form? Isn’t it stitched into the world of musical vernacular that there’s poetry in the varied songs that have shaped modern music over the past thirty-plus years? Our character voices that to the archetypal inspirational teacher who not only makes a hackneyed entrance spewing generic doldrums like “I don’t write poetry, poetry writes me,” and Professor Dixon (another otherwise talented player) offers up some interesting insights regarding the misogynistic, less desirable and combative side to the genre. While I admire the idea of a film that’s willing to explore hip-hop culture from a woman’s point of view, this is merely an idea. The empowerment of the character is couched in and doesn’t evolve from the seedling of a good intention that slides right through our hands.
Instead, Coco’s journey is whittled down to a protracted journey through the world of poetry and a shoehorned cookie-cutter love triangle. It traverses clumsy or even dumb storytelling because it’s entirely counter-intuitive to Banks’ image of a strong-willed woman as she’s being pulled from both arms by two polarizing male cliches. One, the rough-around-edges collaborator Mahlik (John David Washington) the “all I’ve ever known” type, and tugging on her other appendage the scholarly, cleaned up and snotty seething poet and TA Derek (Lucien Laviscount). One represents all Coco’s ever known, and the other is a douche. Well, they both are, but is a different type of douche than what our protagonist is used to, so there’s that. In a story that is quick to disappoint, this downturn adheres to too many cliches and does so with such welcoming embrace it makes one wonder why the film is so ready to adopt this awkward form of cultural appropriation.
In what looks like a movie that’s about a woman who is at a creative crossroads, Love Beats Rhymes is a one way trek from nightclubs and poetry slams to bourgeois brownstones, readings, and snotty pretensions consistent with those who still cling to the aura of yesteryear; where beatniks and finger snapping filled the air of New York’s counterculture.
Love Beats Rhymes is a painfully self-conscious film that starts out as if it’s trying to substantiate the already culturally substantial art that is rap, which tumbles down an awkwardly bumpy road that doesn’t triumph love, beats or rhymes.
Azealia Banks is teeming with charisma, RZA has a legendary career both in music and films (and I’ll go on record saying that his audio commentary on Dragon Dynasty’s release of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is one of the best bonus features) and Common is always a welcome talent both musically and as an actor, so what the fuck?