Hip-hop at the movies: rap stars shining on the silver screen

James Todd Smith – alias LL Cool J – rhymed his way into the hearts of hip-hop lovers everywhere with the release of his groundbreaking debut, Radio, in 1985. It is 2016 and J remains cool as ever, still licking his lips and knocking rivals out – as per mama’s instructions. Though pushing 50, hip-hop’s best balladeer still sends our hearts racing with his charming rhymes; damn near every line he’s ever emceed rapped with the confidence and charisma of a born smooth-talker – a man who tells his audience exactly what it wants to hear.

Not content with sweeping the music world off its feet, rap’s original crooner has also been known to train his showman’s wiles on planet Hollywood, rifling through movie scripts when not leafing through his rhyme-book. For years now, the rapper has been wooing cinema-goers with films like S.W.A.T., In Too Deep and Any Given Sunday. Tinseltown appears to have fallen so hard for the iconic emcee that movie-land recently decided to express that affection by honouring him with his very own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, celebrating a remarkable career of platinum records and box-office success.

Toasting to the achievements of one of hip-hop’s finest, we take a look at a few rappers with the potential to chart a similar course; perhaps following in LL’s gigantic footsteps or blazing a new path on the road to success.

Childish Gambino
The multi-talented Donald Glover is comparable to an ambidextrous footballer in that it’s pretty difficult to determine when he’s putting his best foot forward. Which is stronger: his acting or his rapping? The 32-year-old is a refreshingly well-rounded entertainer, having initially impressed with his writing credits on Mystery Team and the award-winning 30 Rock; in between staging well-received stand-up specials, improvising at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade and tickling the internet to hysterics with his sketch group – Derrick Comedy. Probably known to most as Childish Gambino, Glover is one of the most beloved rappers out there, catering to his legions of fans with his eclectic, humorous and emotive raps.

The prolific performer has two EPs and full-length albums to his name, as well as seven mixtapes and a raft of chart-topping singles. Still, he has somehow managed to find enough time to star in a couple of movies and TV shows, earning a place in the zeitgeist with Community – arguably one of the most underrated – television shows of all-time. Proving himself a thesp of some regard in big budget projects like Ridley Scott’s The Martian, the Stone Mountain, Georgia native is well on his way to being recognised as an actor to be contended with, particularly with his very own TV show, Atlanta, coming out soon.


Keith Stanfield
Telling the tale of a 20-something-year-old supervisor working in a group home for troubled teenagers, Short Term 12 stars some of the very best up-and-coming actors around, including the incredible Brie Larsson, John Gallagher Junior of Newsroom fame, Mr Robot’s Rami Malek and young Kaitlyn Dever from Justified. Each actor turns in a stellar performance, but none steals the show quite like a brooding and intense Keith Stanfield does. The camera takes to him like it’s love at first sight, affectionately zooming in on his performance to hint at the impressive range of a surprisingly beguiling actor, especially for one so young.

Born LaKeith Lee Stanfield, in San Bernadino, California, the lanky actor landed his first film role in Cretton’s Short Term 12. The likeable Californian has since gone on to star in The Purge: Anarchy, Ava Duvernay’s stirring Selma and the excellent Straight Outta Compton, playing Long Beach California’s one and only Snoop Doggy Dogg. Considering the latter, it should come as no surprise that the boy can really rap (he actually shows off his mic skills in Short Term 12, going hard with some searing and painfully visceral rhymes in arguably the movie’s best scene).

Stanfield gets his rhyme on as part of the experimental two-man band, Moors (alongside producer, HH). The duo released their self-titled debut EP in 2014, featuring the dope singles Gas and Asphyxiated, and have already built up a strong following of loyal fans. Stanfield is set to attract even more admirers with strong roles in several marquee movies to be released later this year, including Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead. The gifted performer will also be seen teaming up with ‘Bino in the latter’s new show, Atlanta, in the coming months.


A$AP Rocky
A$AP Rocky was born for the lights, cameras and action. Hip-hop’s crown prince of braggadocio and bluster possesses all the confidence and swagger of an in-demand leading man, taking easily to fame as though it were his birthright (he was named after the legendary Rakim, after all).

Having conquered the rap charts and taken over the world of fashion, the ambitious Harlemite now appears to be setting his sights on Hollywood. Although boasting fewer acting credits than the other rappers cited on this list, Rocky makes up for his inexperience with his exuberance, notably catching the eye in Rick Famuyiwa’s indie darling, Dope.

Starring alongside the likes of Forrest Whittaker, Zoey Kravitz, and his former flame, Chanel Iman, Rocky delivers a charming performance as the personable drug-dealer, Dom – a comedic showing teasing at the possibility of a successful transition from the mic booth to the movie lot. The 27-year-old will next be seen – or rather, heard – on the HBO animated series, Animals, with more star turns certain to come. Leading to the inevitable question: is Hollywood big enough for more than one famous Rocky? Balboa beware.


Kid Cudi
Cudi has made his fair share of films; the runtime of his acting reel longer than most might expect. The former G.O.O.D. Music artist has been cast in movies like Need For Speed, Entourage and Two Night Stand, and has also appeared on a number of popular TV shows, including Brooklyn Nine-Nine, One Tree Hill and landing a recurring role on the short-lived How to Make It in America.

While Cudder burst onto the music scene with the release of his first major single, Day N Nite, he’s taken a little longer to be recognised for the quality of his acting. Judging by all the buzz surrounding Josh Mond’s moving drama, James White, that might be about to change, the Lonely Stoner finally getting his acting props.

Christopher Abott – the one-time Girls actor – plays the movie’s title character, James White: a young, self-destructive New Yorker contending with a series of major life issues. Cudi takes on the role of White’s best friend, Nick, who sets about whipping his depressed buddy into shape with some tough love. Easily his best and most intimate dramatic outing to date, Cudi turns heads with an affecting portrayal of brotherly love in the face dejection and despair. He channels his inner Sidney Poitier to hold his own alongside the devastating Cynthia Nixon and Abbot throughout the movie, silencing his critics with a breakout showing. If the rapper’s turn in the touching drama is anything to go by, the Man on the Moon might very well be a good actor, as well as an out of this world musician.


If Drake owned Fred Astaire’s dancing shoes he might be considered a triple threat. The quality of his footwork aside, the man has many strings to his bow. He is, of course, a world-famous rapper, sometime singer, award-winning songwriter and producer. He is also a more than capable actor, having first tasted fame with his portrayal of Jimmy Brooks on the long-running Degrassi series.

The OVO superstar has made appearances on the small-screen adaptation of Soul Food, Being Erica, Sophie and The Border, lending his voice to Ice Age: Continental Drift and featuring briefly in Anchorman 2. While clearly focussed on his music, T Dot’s favourite son has spoken at length about his desire to return to acting – should the right script turn up.

Showing off his theatrical side in cinematic videos like Hold On, We’re Going Home (and with hosting stints on SNL), the Canadian clearly still has his heart set on that rare and hallowed full-sweep of showbiz accolades: the EGOT – “Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony”. With Spike Lee himself suggesting he’d love to cast the rapper in the sequel to the 1988 cult classic, School Daze, who’s to say the record-breaking 28-year-old won’t be an Oscar contender anytime soon? You wouldn’t bet against the man.

Words: Leke Sanusi

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