By David Canfield
October 10, 2018 at 12:07 PM EDT
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Harper Collins

A name to know in YA, Tiffany D. Jackson is hitting the streets of Brooklyn for her new novel, Let Me Hear a Rhyme.

A new standalone novel by the critically acclaimed author of Allegedly and Monday’s Not Coming, Let Me Hear a Rhyme tells the story of three Brooklyn teens who plot to turn their murdered friend into a major rap star by pretending he is still alive. Jackson has collaborated with Malik “Malik-16” Sharif on this new title, with the latter contributing original lyrics to this hip hop-infused tale.

Calling to mind such authors as Nic Stone (Dear Martin) and Jason Reynolds (A Long Way Down), Jackson continues to show her range with a different kind of book than what she’s published before. The author has shared an exclusive preview with EW, including the book’s vibrant official cover and an excerpt, which you can read below. Let Me Hear a Rhyme publishes May 21, 2019, and is available for pre-order.

Tiffany D. Jackson

Excerpt from Let Me Hear a Rhyme, by Tiffany D. Jackson

CHAPTER FOUR
March 18, 1997

The air was thick and electric.

A hum buzzed through the crowd blanketing sidewalks. Heads popped out of open windows, staring off into the distance. Everyone watching anxiously . . . waiting to catch a glimpse of hip-hop royalty.

Stephon Davis snorted up the electricity with a smirk. He craned his neck into the desolate street lined with blue police barricades working like dams to hold the overpacked crowd from flooding the empty space. Any moment now, the cars would roll through, and his hometown hero would make his last drive through the borough of Kings.

Steph touched the tender spaces in between the cornrows under his knit hat with a slight wince. Jasmine always redid his hair when his mom couldn’t, but she had a nasty habit of pulling too tight and twisting pieces of his scalp into his braids. A little pain is better than looking busted, he thought, and sniffed the air again.

Old ladies held candles around the makeshift memorials peppered with cards and teddy bears. Kids held up handmade posters . . .

Notorious B.I.G. Forever! Biggie Lives! We Love You Big Poppa!

Much different from the guys he passed on Fulton selling Biggie RIP T-shirts.

“I can’t believe we skipped school for this,” Quadir said behind him. “You know Ms. Reign’s gonna call my moms on me.”

“Fuck reading about all those dead white people,” Jarrell said, squished next to him, his hoodie up. “This is real history happening right now!”

The temperature began to drop and the cold sank into their bones. All they could do was blow hot air into their hands and hope the March sun would peek out from behind the clouds. They hadn’t come dressed for the weather. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision by Steph.

I should’ve brought Jasmine, Steph thought, watching a group of girls cry across the street. She needed to see that it wasn’t just him with unconditional love for Biggie.

TV crews and cameramen wiggled their way between residents. On the opposite end of the block, cops gathered, patrolling in riot gear. A few people booed, their presence unwelcome.

A hushed stillness came over the crowd. The quiet felt unnatural for Brooklyn, and it made Steph edgy. He was more comfortable with the noise of hectic traffic, street sirens, and arguing neighbors. He couldn’t even fall asleep without the radio on.

“Yo, where this fool at?” Jarrell said, shivering. “It’s brick out here.”

“You sure they gonna drive this way?” Quadir asked, bouncing on the balls of his feet.

“This is Biggie’s block. He lived right over there, 226 St. James Place!”

“But we’ve been waiting for like two hours. The funeral gotta be over by now.”

Steph started having doubts. What if they lied? What if he wasn’t coming through Brooklyn like planned? That would mean he had convinced his best friends to ditch for nothing. That also meant he wouldn’t have the chance to say goodbye.

“Aye! There they are!” Someone cheered.

At first only a few cops on motorcycles rounded the corner, crawling up the street, but behind them, the procession slowly followed, a caravan of limos following a black hearse, similar to what Biggie stood next to on the cover of his last album, Life After Death.

The block erupted with cheers. Everyone waving signs, clapping, whistling, saluting with fists held high, as girls screamed, “We love you, BIG!”

“Look! There’s Faith!” Someone yelled, pointing at Big’s widow in the back of one of the limos.

People peered through the tinted windows, straining to see the stars inside. One car passed, covered in beautiful wreaths, a standing spray with B.I.G. spelled out in red flowers. Tears flowed, even from the hood cats and stickup kids. They felt the impact of losing someone who had represented not only their struggle, but the life of every kid growing up in Brooklyn.

One of those kids was Steph. And as the hearse rolled by, surrounded by his best friends cheering and screaming, he raised a hand to wave and watched in silence.

The last car made a turn with a sharp finality and the block became still again. The small ripples of sadness that washed over them while they waited became giant tidal waves.

“Damn,” Jarrell said. The only word to describe the feeling.

The boys instinctively started walking toward Fulton as raw emotions spilled into the streets.

“He was ours, yo!” A man cried on the corner, sniffling through his words. “He was us! He dressed like us, talked like us, looked like us. No one from Brooklyn represented us like Big. No one!”

“Yo, duke is messed up,” Quady said, solemnly.

“That’s what it’s like when you lose family,” Steph said. He was familiar with the shape mourning leaves you in: bent, broken, shattered, grasping at anything that would make you feel whole again. Music healed Steph after his father died. Biggie healed Steph.

Now, they’re both gone.

Then, out of nowhere, someone turned up the volume, and “Hypnotize” rumbled through speakers . . .

Uh, Uh, Uh . . . c’mon

Biggie’s voice was like the lighter that set the streets on fire. Everyone started jumping, dancing, and singing. The boys grinned at one another and took off into the crowd.

Hah, sicka than your average
Poppa twist cabbage off instinct
Niggas don’t think shit stink, pink gators,
My Detroit players
Timbs for my hooligans in Brooklyn

On the corner, Jarrell jumped on a dumpster with a crew of other kids, waving their hands in the air. Quadir and Steph set it off with the crowd below. They partied, singing at the top of their lungs, celebrating a dynamic life cut short on the very block he sold crack.

WOOP WOOP! In an instant, the cops descended like an army, shutting down their one moment of happiness. They ripped people off the cars they danced on, throwing men on the ground and against store windows, struggling to slap cuffs on anyone they could get their hands on.

In a panic, Steph looked up at Jarrell, unaware of the cops approaching.

“Rell! Watch out!” he screamed, but it was too late. A cop yanked at his arm and he toppled over to the ground. Another cop pressed a knee into Jarrell’s back.

“Yo, get off me,” Jarrell gurgled out, cheek pressed into the concrete. “I ain’t do nothing!”

Pepper spray perfumed the air. Pandemonium. Women coughed, sergeants barked, and sirens blared as Biggie continued to play in the background.

“Why y’all doing this?” a young girl cried to the cops pushing at the crowd. “This is mad unnecessary! We came here to represent for Biggie. Y’all won’t even let us have this!”

Steph looked to Quadir. There was only one way to save their friend. On the count of three, they bum-rushed the cop with their joint shoulders. The cop fell on his back. Quickly, Quadir helped Jarrell to his feet, doubling back.

“Yo, go! Go!” Quadir yelled, pulling Steph with him. “Run!”

Steph took off running, down Fulton Street, toward home. Wind whistled through his ears; his sneakers smacked the pavement as he ran harder, faster. Running from the cops and the new pain thumping in his chest he couldn’t tell his friends about. They would look at him . . . funny. He hated having to be so strong all the time. He looked back at Quadir, hot on his tail, Jarrell trailing behind them.

They all knew where to go: straight to Habibi’s.

They jogged down Marion Street to Patchen Ave, collapsing outside the corner bodega facing Brevoort.

“Yo, shit got crazy, I can’t believe they tried to bust me,” Jarrell wheezed. “Good looking out back there, y’all. Drinks on me!”

Jarrell grabbed three red quarter waters, a pack of sunflower seeds for Quadir, Dipsy Doodles for Steph, and chocolate Hostess cupcakes for himself.

Steph leaned against the light post, gazing at Brevoort across the street, Biggie playing out the speakers of almost every other window.

“Son, there were mad people out there,” Jarrell said, leaning against the brick wall. “Even white people! So much love for Big!”

“And you saw all them cameras and reporters,” Quadir added, squatting down on an empty black milk crate. “It’s gonna be all over the news tonight.”

Steph remained silent, lost in his own thoughts. The weight of grief settled like dust upon his skin. How could he lose the two men that shaped him? Why do people that he love got to die? And how does he protect everyone left who’s important to him?

Quadir glanced up at his friend, cocking his head to the side. He always noticed when Steph drifted too far and had to fish him back out.

“You aight, kid?”

Steph sighed. “I just can’t believe he’s gone. He should have never went to Cali! Should’ve stayed his ass right here in Brooklyn. Cats took him out on some revenge type shit when he never did nothing to nobody.”

Quadir spat out a few sunflower seeds on the concrete.

“Yo, deadass,” he said, cautious of the ears around them that could brand him a traitor. “This whole East Coast-West Coast beef never made sense to me. They even said it in Vibe—it was just a bunch of ‘he said, she said’ shit. And look what it cost us. Two of the best rappers alive.” He shook his head. “Tupac was the man, and I was shook to listen to him ’cause cats were wildin’. Why can’t I rep for Bad Boy but fuck with an artist on Death Row? Good music is good music. Point, blank, period.”

“Yeah,” Jarrell said, stuffing his mouth with the last cupcake. “That’s like when cats go ‘which one is better, DC Comics or Marvel?’ Son, everyone know Marvel is the illest. But you gotta respect Superman. I mean, duke’s an alien that can fly, carrying buildings and shit.”

Steph smirked. “So Tupac’s an alien?”

“He ain’t from our world,” Quadir said, laughing. “Duke was from the future or something.”

“Word, kid. See, ’cause Superman was born on the planet Krypton, which is like light-years ahead in the future, so he got all these powers beyond our human capabilities.”

His friends stared at him as if he had five heads.

“What?”

Quadir laughed. “Son, I can’t believe you got us out here on the block talking about comic books like a bunch of nerds.”

“Shut yo’ ass up!” Jarrell snapped. “Everybody reads comic books!”

“So what you saying?” Quadir challenged. “Biggie was like Spider-Man or something?”

“Yeah! Well, except the part him being from Queens and all.”

“He was one of us,” Steph added with a shrug. “He looked out for his people. He was . . . home.”

The boys looked up through the trees at home, Brevoort. Towering brown buildings, a busy hub full of life.

“Yo, son, let me hear a rhyme or something,” Jarrell said. “Out here all sad and shit.”

Steph smiled. “Aight, set it off.”

Jarrell smirked before covering his mouth, and started beatboxing, Quadir already bobbing his head.

Unh! Watch me smash it
Funny how these days,
You can’t even view a casket
Of your favorite rapper
Without gettin your ass kicked
by the jakes
That’s harassment, them bastards tried to chase
Ran out of breath
We ran out from death
Tried to Rodney King me
My peeps ran out like “Steph!”
Felt like my heart ran out my chest—but I’m blessed!
Tell ‘em, “King Me!”
This is checkers, not chess!

But we doing this for B.I.G.
Rell compared him to Spider-Man, now I think see why, G . . .
‘Cause it’s all about them red and blues
He got caught up in that web
Had the press confused,
telling lies like the Daily Bugle
But ain’t no J. Jonah Jameson,
Just some busters in Cali,
Lames wanna hate him.
So today we rally,
They ain’t gonna stop us,
The year ninety-seven and it ain’t the same without ya
So you gon’ hear this on these streets all day
“Spread love is the Brooklyn way”

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