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Azealia Banks plays an aspiring rapper who learns the true power of spoken word in ‘Love Beats Rhymes.’
USA TODAY

Azealia Banks is back in the headlines, but not for reasons you might expect. 

The volatile rapper — who was banned from Twitter last year after targeting former One Directioner Zayn Malik with racist slurs — is making her formal acting debut in hip-hop drama Love Beats Rhymes (available on demand and in theaters Friday in 10 cities including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta).

And the verdict is: She’s actually pretty good. 

In the film, which is directed by Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, Banks plays an aspiring rapper named Coco who performs freestyles with a battle rap crew at dingy clubs, but struggles to find a record label willing to take them on. Meanwhile, her mom (Lorraine Toussaint) pushes her to go back to community college, where she enrolls in a poetry class and immediately clashes with the bombastic Professor Dixon (Jill Scott) and attractive teaching assistant Derek (Lucien Laviscount), neither of whom think hip-hop has any place in the classroom. 

You can probably see where this is going. Through writing poetry, Coco learns to become a more honest, perceptive rapper, and grudgingly falls for Derek in the process. It’s a completely harmless, if forgettable, hour and 45 minutes, hindered most by RZA’s formulaic storytelling and Scott’s scenery-chewing performance. 

In fact, Banks comes off best of anyone involved. Playing an up-and-coming hip-hop artist in Brooklyn is by no means a stretch for the New York native, who studied musical theater at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (aka the Fame school). But she proves to be a captivating screen presence, bringing vulnerability and doe-eyed charm to Coco, and selling even some of the movie’s clunkiest dialogue with a flash of her puckish grin. 

While Nicole Jefferson Asher’s script doesn’t give Banks many chances to stretch herself dramatically, there is a clever nod to her tempestuous history with social media. After she’s booted from the poetry seminar for rapping, Coco discovers that Derek is mocking her online….