The first single off the Brown Sugar soundtrack is Erykah Badu’s “Love of My Life (Ode to Hip-hop).” A lush, sweet declaration, with supple lyrics and lingering beats, it narrates a romance with hip-hop: “I met him when I was a / Little girl, he gave me / He gave me poetry / And he was my first.” For the video, Badu and her man Common trade lyrics, while she walks through the “history” of hip-hop, with costume changes and nods to several phases (including Chuck D’s cameo as a militant rapper, with blueprints, and MC Lyte’s freestyle, to which Badu adds a few crisp lines). Like most every Badu project, the video is upbeat and smart, breezy-cool and sea-deep.
The opening scenes of Rick Famuyiwa’s film, Brown Sugar, offer an ode of their own. A series of hip-hop artists — including Common, Kool G Rap, Pete Rock, Talib Kweli, Big Daddy Kane, ?uestlove, Black Thought, Method Man, and Russell Simmons — describe how they “fell in love with hip-hop.” They make for a dazzling array of invention and inspiration, and while they’re supposedly answering a question put to them by the film’s protagonist and narrator, hip-hop journalist Sidney Shaw (Sanaa Lathan), their answers don’t appear to be scripted. Rather, they offer genuine assessments of their relations to the culture that sustains their passions and shapes their worldviews, no matter the occasional frustrations.
From here, Sidney goes on to detail her early experience with hip-hop, recalling the moment on July 18, 1984 when heard her first MCs (Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick, of all people). In this backstory-flashback (where she’s played by Aaliyah Hill), Sidney also has her first encounter with her lifelong friend, Andre (Marc John Jeffries, who will grow up to be Taye Diggs). They exchange adorable glances and nod their heads to the beat: true love, no doubt.
The film fastforwards to the moment when Sidney is leaving her job as hip-hop writer for the Los Angeles Times, headed to NYC, where she’ll be editing at XXL. It’s also where she’ll be reunited with Dre, now a mad successful producer at Millennium Records, whose head-suit Simon (Wendell Price) describes their mission like so: “We make hits. You want to keep it real, you go to Rawkus. Here, you keep it profitable.” Until Sidney comes back on the scene, Dre’s ostensibly happy with this set-up: he’s rich, respected in the business, and affianced to lovely upper-crusty lawyer Reese (Nicole Ari Parker, here standing in for Tyra Banks in Love & Basketball, in which Sanaa Lathan almost didn’t get her man Omar Epps). Sidney reminds him that real hip-hop is not about profits. He begins to rethink his priorities. Sort of.
As it is a romantic comedy designed to “cross over,” Brown Sugar has a series of boxes to check off: beautiful lovers meant to be together, obstacles to their being together, supportively comic sidekicks. That said, it isn’t so annoying in its box-checking as Sweet Home Alabama, which reduces its talented cast to a series of down home Southern jokes. Brown Sugar‘s got jokes, to be sure, but they’re a little less tired, if only because hip-hop is a little less well-worn, movie-wise, than that down home bidness. As overriding metaphor, history, and setting, hip-hop helps the film maintain a certain perspective and connectedness too: the characters have careers, experiences, and interests that grant them existences beyond each other.
That said, the hip-hop metaphor comes on very strong, particularly in Sidney’s voiceover (probably not so necessary), as she frequently reminds you that hip-hop is her first love, that it sustains and instructs her, and keeps her honest. And for some reason, her gig with XXL is framed as if it’s less of a sell-out than Dre’s with Millennium Records: he’s producing acts like the Hip-hop Dalmatians, a.k.a. Ren and Ten (Erik Weiner and Reggi Wynns), complete with spotted fur jackets, whose first single is a cover of Paul McCartney and MJ’s “The Girl is Mine,” restyled as “The Ho is Mine.” If Sidney is self-conscious and vocal about her allegiance to the “real” hip-hop, Dre serves as the cautionary tale, an original acolyte who loses his way, distracted by the fine accessories and prestige.
Sidney’s return to the East Coast not only brings her back together with Dre (whom she actually watches propose to Reese, through a glass wall at a pool party), but also with her eminently sensible cousin Francine (Queen Latifah). Aside from the fact that the role — the eminently sensible girl sidekick — is so distressingly rote, Latifah brings charm to burn (she needs her own movie). Francine notes right off that Sidney’s really in love with Dre (helping her unpack, months after she’s returned, Francine finds a contraption that Sidney insists is an electric back massager: the point is made). No slouch, Francine warns her cuz that she’s “turning into a Terry McMillan character” (which, in fact, Lathan was, in HBO’s Disappearing Acts), pushing her to make her feelings known before her man up and marries that other skinny girl.
Sidney, apparently pretending to be a slouch in order to accommodate the requisite plot machinations, insists that she and Dre are only best friends since childhood. (And Francine has an answer for that as well, that if Sidney hooks up with him, she gets the “buddy and the booty.”) This despite the fact that Sidney visibly cringes whenever she sees Dre snuggle up to frosty Reese.
More complications arise when, after the wedding (during which ceremony Francine makes much raucous coughy noise at the “or forever hold your peace” part), Sidney takes up with flashy New Jersey Nets star Kelby (Boris Kodjoe), whom she meets during an XXL interview (in fact, that job is looking better and better: she never has to work — you see her lay out the cover once, I think — and her most excellent reputation precedes her no matter where she goes). Kelby persuades her to marry him, or at least set a date and start planning, and since Dre is already busy, well, she figures why not?
What she doesn’t know, for a minute, and you do, is that Dre has finally had it with the Dalmatians, and he quits his high-power job to start his own label, “Brown Sugar.” His first contract is with cab driver/MC extraordinaire Chris (Mos Def), who makes Dre pay for his trust by cleaning out his cab. While this may appear to be a way of bringing Dre back to his roots, maybe even smudging his designer sweater, it also looks like one of those weird bonding rituals that men perpetrate in movies and nowhere else.
That said, Chris serves a couple of hip-hop-related purposes worth noting. Primarily, he re-authenticates Dre, makes him worthy of Sidney’s real love, but he also authenticates the movie. Along with the film’s opening interviews with artists, Mos Def brings realness (plus honest acting talent too, not to mention wry and well-timed comedy).
Mos Def, Lathan, Diggs, and Latifah, might all be doing something other than a mainstream romantic comedy, slightly tweaked with hip-hop inflections, and so might Erykah Badu and Common be doing something other than contributing to a movie soundtrack CD. But in doing it, they can invite non-heads to understand what Badu terms the “simple true love” of hip-hop art, politics, and culture, but from the same distance that marks most consumption of mainstream product: possession without investment. In doing it, they can also (further) blur lines between mainstream and margin, mix up the spirits, just as hip-hop — so-called real hip-hop but also, in its way, brashly commercial hip-hop — has always done. The Dalmatians may be a price to pay along the way, as might the break into romantic comedy. But what’s most important emerges in Badu’s pointed hook: “Hope this shit ain’t clear,” she repeats. It’s on you to work toward understanding.