Glitzy, fun satire spoofs world of hip-hop

August 22, 2004|By Joanne A. Skerrett | Joanne A. Skerrett,Boston Globe

Bling, by Erica Kennedy. Miramax. 528 pages. $24.95.

According to the buzz surrounding the release of Erica Kennedy's satire of the hip-hop industry, many members of that trendy Manhattan circle were parsing the more than 500 pages of Bling for its characters' resemblance to themselves or others they may know or know of.

In less fashionable places, where the word "ice" still connotes what we scrape off our windshields in winter and not what we wear on our fingers or wrists, Bling is no controversy; rather it's a glitzy, fast-paced, fun read that lays bare the inner workings of that ghetto-fabulous world.

The novel's main character, Lamont Jackson, is an overeating, womanizing, ravenously ambitious record-label executive who, at age 38, is feeling ancient and insecure in this industry where youth is the holy grail.

He needs a hit or a new star to shuttle him into the chief spot at Augusta Music and to compete with the younger, edgier cats who are nipping at his heels. These rivals have names like Don Gambino, and they show up at tony New York restaurants, entourage in tow, clad in sneakers and sweat suits -- a painful visual reminder for the more buttoned-down Lamont that he's no longer the risk-taker he used to be.

But then, in walks Marie Jean Castiglione, a wide-eyed and talented biracial 19-year-old from the Midwest who has the vocal talent and marketable look that are raw material for today's hip-hop and R&B divas. Lamont becomes Marie Jean's Svengali, renaming her Mimi and directing her life as if it were his own movie.

Despite Mimi's initial misgivings, she surrenders to the army of consultants Lamont has hired, among them a spoiled rich girl who tries to hide her background by speaking in street lingo and consorting with bad-boy rappers, and an aging, self-centered supermodel who has been compared with Naomi Campbell.

Bling's more memorable characters include Lamont's mother, the stereotypical stage mom living the high life off her son's success, and Ally B., the uber-hip and driven blond publicist behind the image-making that consumes Lamont and his ilk.

Kennedy plows deeply into this world, which she seems to know. She has written for Vibe magazine, a chronicler of hip-hop culture. Yet the writing is clear-eyed enough that it doesn't condone or condemn the culture's excesses and the actions of its players.

The novel has the requisite surfeit of name-dropping, expletive-laden dialogue, racy sex scenes, nods to designer-brand clothing, and other forms of material idolatry. And the all-consuming pursuit of money and sex, with the omnipresent threat of violence, only solidifies the image of hip-hop as many of its critics see it.

It's not an entirely new plot (think Mariah Carey's Glitter). And the movie rights to Bling have been sold to Miramax. But Kennedy's memorable supporting cast of characters, energetic writing, and skilled plotting put a new shine on something that could have easily turned out as hackneyed and overly predictable.

Bling has hubris, tragedy, and comedy, but it lacks the depth that would make for more than a snappy summer read.

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