Authenticity means everything in hip-hop, because if a rapper isn't speaking the truth about who he is and where he's from, then he's basically Vanilla Ice, desperately spinning his gangsta roots on the mean streets of suburban Dallas. Much like Eminem's 8 Mile, the vibrant rap drama Hustle & Flow wraps the authentic around the inauthentic, telling an underdog story that sticks to formula, yet resonates with an undeniably real energy and texture. Writer-director Craig Brewer had Sundance audiences cheering over the exploits of a lowdown Memphis pimp, and turning crunk tracks like "Whoop That Trick" and "It's Hard For A Pimp" into inspirational anthems for the whole family is some kind of achievement. Hustle & Flow may feel too much like a movie in the end, but Brewer and a stunning Terrence Howard bottle the excitement of the creative process and the burden that long-shot dreams put both on the dreamer and those who support him.
Skillfully evoking the gritty texture and soul of the Memphis slums, Hustle & Flow opens with Howard delivering the sort of street soliloquy that suggests his talents and his ambitions are not tied exclusively to pimping. After Howard hears that local boy-turned-rap-powerhouse Ludacris plans to come back to a neighborhood bar over the July 4 weekend, he immediately seizes on the opportunity to give his scribbled rhymes some amplification. To that end, he calls on Anthony Anderson, an old high-school chum whose steady work as a small-time music producer has allowed him to climb a few rungs higher than Howard on the social ladder. Over his wife's objections, Anderson agrees to produce a homemade demo tape, recording in an egg-crate-lined bedroom with the affable DJ Qualls manufacturing crunk beats on the turntable.
The scenes of the three men at work—laying down tracks that start with the barest of rhymes and open up as the beats spring them to life—are by far the most exhilarating in the film; it's like a watching a creative spark nurtured into flame. If nothing else, the paint-by-numbers underdog plot raises the stakes high enough to give these sessions an extra charge, and the urgency carries over into Howard's riveting encounter with Ludacris, which is a fine tutorial in the art of the hustle. But Brewer's commercial instincts keep him from challenging the audience's sympathies toward Howard in any way, perhaps for fear that his considerable charisma will take too deep a dent. What results is the friendliest pimp south of the Mason-Dixon line, someone who can rap about slapping tricks, but at worst acts a little sullen and callous, too consumed by ambition to look past his nose. He's a lovable lowlife: easy to root for, hard to believe.