Pop star Azealia Banks enters the ring in the rap battle romance “Love Beats Rhymes” veiled in black with a microphone, a dead rose and a coffin. Her character Coco Ford, a struggling New York singer, looks like a witch, and Banks’ fans might shiver remembering that the singer-turned-actress actually is one (last year, she posted a Snapchat video of the bloody closet where she sacrifices chickens). That first image of Banks haunts the film long after director RZA, the head of the Wu-Tang Clan, attempts to exorcise it with an inspirational drama about Coco’s summer-semester poetry class. With a plot as predictable as a haiku, RZA and screenwriter Nicole Jefferson Asher would have done better to embrace the strangeness.
Coco is at a crossroads. Her four-person freestyle group wants a record deal, but the three dudes in the band don’t want to write down lyrics — especially her flaky crush Mahlik (John David Washington of “Ballers”) who can’t commit to words or women. Her mother (Lorraine Toussaint) insists Coco complete her accounting degree. Coco hates school. Banks literally bares her teeth at the red brick campus, like a dog staring down a mailman.
Her suspicion makes sense. Asher has scripted a bizarre college where Prof. Nefari Dixon (three-time Grammy winner Jill Scott) gets a thunderstorm of applause just walking into the first day of Poetry 101. The classroom is so packed that students are forced to audition. When handsome British teaching assistant Derek (Lucien Laviscount), a slam poet with immaculate stubble, disqualifies Coco for reciting rap lyrics, she resolves to prove her couplets merit an A+, even if she thinks her instructors are snobs. As her best friend Julie (“Pitch Perfect” whispering weirdo Hana Mae Lee) groans, “Girl, you gotta turn everything into a battle.”
Every character in “Love Beats Rhymes” deserves to get expelled, except for sidelined Julie, stuck smiling in a crop-top in the margins of the movie. Between poetry competitions hosted by Dixon’s husband Coltrane (Common), Coco and Dixon plunge into a viral Twitter war and then an abrupt, but preordained fling.
Their romance is vapid, except for a charming little scene where Dixon drags his student to a saxophone and spoken-word performance on the Staten Island ferry by two strangers who might be artists, or might just be drunk. It’s more interesting to watch Coco prod the sluggish Mahlik to make their band a decent demo, preferably one without lame boasts about violence. Grumbles Coco, “We’re not gangster, we’ve never been to jail and we got no guns!” Why make their names bragging about someone else’s life?
Coco and Mahlik’s scenes are the only ones that seem to take place on earth. Everything else is from some Maya Angelou-inspired Mars — sometimes deliberately so, like Scott’s fatuous accent, so posh and exaggerated it sounds like she’s slipping hundred dollar bills between the syllables. As she sneers at the misogynistic, small-minded modern rap hits with their “canonical work by LMFAO,” you can imagine the entire top-100 chart shriveling up in shame.
Banks’ acting debut isn’t as magnetic, but she’s sturdy. Her favorite expression is a confident smirk. In reality, Banks infamous for saying things she shouldn’t — the movie’s fictional online fights are toddler talk next to what’s gotten her suspended from Twitter. After the movie wrapped, she and RZA began feuding over a party they attended with Russell Crowe, gossip that shouldn’t have much bearing on the film, except to possibly explain why the big names behind it haven’t done more publicity.
Yet, RZA clearly believes Banks has potential. In one scene, his camera swirls around her while she spits insults at a street showcase. He frames her like a kung-fu warrior (the subject of his first film, “The Man with the Iron Fists”) in that pause before the climactic battle. The only quibble is that he doesn’t pull back enough to show Banks’ full powers. When she emphasizes a line with a little shimmy, it’s barely visible.
“Love Beats Rhymes” doesn’t bother to show Coco in her accounting classes, her supposed reason for going back to school. And for as much as the people in the film talk about lyrics (or really, talk around them, focusing on large ideas over individual lines), RZA ultimately doesn’t offer any craft advice besides channel your angst.
That tip’s worked well enough for Banks. She survives her first film role without being mocked as a rapper who reached beyond her skills. Nothing in “Love Beats Rhymes” is as gripping as that initial entrance — and none of the music is as odd and wonderful as her own. Her debut isn’t a mic drop. But it’s enough to make us curious to hear from her again.