'Love Beats Rhymes': Film Review

Love Beats Rhymes Still 2 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Lionsgate
Banks makes an impressive screen debut in this hip-hop-themed tale.

Azealia Banks plays an aspiring rapper in this romantic drama directed by Wu-Tang Clan co-founder RZA.

Wu-Tang Clan co-founder RZA makes a sharp stylistic departure with his directorial follow-up to his debut feature, 2012's martial arts extravaganza The Man With the Iron Fists. Featuring rapper/singer Azealia Banks in her first starring role, the punningly titled Love Beats Rhymes is a romantic drama that also explores the comparative merits of poetry and rap. Despite its frequently clunky dramaturgy, the film makes some interesting points while providing an excellent showcase for Banks' considerable onscreen charisma.

The pop star plays Coco, a young Staten Island woman who works in her mother's (Lorraine Toussaint) soul food restaurant while struggling to make it as a rapper in a crew that includes her casual boyfriend Malik (John David Washington). When her mother insists that she go back to college and get her degree, Coco winds up in a poetry class taught by the imperious Professor Nefari Dixon (Jill Scott). The professor, prone to making such pronouncements as "I do not write poetry, poetry writes me," kicks Coco out of her class for daring to rap instead of reciting poetry.   

"I've forgotten more about hip-hop than you'll ever know," Dixon huffily informs Coco in a spirited debate over hip-hop's often misogynistic and exploitative aspects. Such exchanges are the most interesting aspects of the drama. Far less compelling is the main storyline involving Coco's burgeoning romantic relationship with British teaching assistant Derek (Lucien Laviscount), the sort of suave, gentlemanly type who immediately pitches in to wait tables at her mother's restaurant. But Coco eventually discovers an unsavory side to her new suitor.

The film features excitingly staged rap competition and poetry slam sequences, with Common and Method Man displaying their trademark charisma as M.C.s. Grammy-winning musician Esperanza Spalding also makes a cameo appearance, playing herself while backing up Professor Dixon's recital during an elegant poetry salon.

While Nicole Jefferson Asher's script often lapses into romantic melodrama, it also features incisive dialogue and characterization that lift Love Beats Rhymes above its formulaic aspects. RZA's straightforward, gimmick-free direction suits the material well and, not surprisingly, displays a keen sense of milieu. He's also elicited strong performances from the cast, especially Banks, who proves highly appealing as the strong-minded Coco, and Scott, dominating her every scene as the diva-like professor.

Production companies: Codeblack Films, Lionsgate, Spoken Productions
Distributor: Lionsgate
Cast: Azealia Banks, Jill Scott, Lucien Laviscount, Lorraine Toussaint, John David Washington, Hana Mae Lee, Clifford "Method Man" Smith, Common
Director: RZA
Screenwriter: Nicole Jefferson Asher
Producer: Paul Hall
Director of photography: Joseph White
Production designer: Sharon Lomofsky
Editors: Bruce Cannon, Maysie Hoy
Costume designer: Lorraine Coppin
Composer: Richard Gibbs
Casting: Deborah Aquila, Kerry Barden, Paul
Schnee, Tricia Wood

Rated R, 106 minutes