Anyone coming into “Love Beats Rhymes” expecting to find some continuity with 2012’s “The Man With the Iron Fists,” the prior and first feature film directed by the hip-hop luminary RZA, may well be confounded. “Iron Fists,” in which the founding member of Wu-Tang Clan also starred, was a not entirely successful meta-martial arts picture buoyed by some imaginative idiosyncrasy. “Love Beats Rhymes” is a contemporary romantic drama that’s very grounded in a conventional personal-growth narrative.
The rap artist Azealia Banks plays Coco, an aspiring hip-hop musician whose crew, the self-dubbed “Staten Island’s Finest,” is stalled with no record label interest. Her bandmate Malik (John David Washington) proves a faithless boyfriend, and Coco doesn’t split from the group, but does distance herself from it. “You want to rap? That’s fine with me,” Coco’s no-nonsense mother advises. “But from now on you’re going to have to do it between classes.”
At the small college where Coco studies accounting, she is led by her friend Julie (Hana Mae Lee) to a poetry class headed by the imperious, glamorous Professor Dixon (Jill Scott) and her handsome, young British-accented teaching assistant Derek (Lucien Laviscount). Both insist to Coco that rap and poetry are different things. She defiantly sets to prove them wrong, only to discover that in a way they’re right.
The script by Nicole Jefferson Asher toggles between sharp observations about wordcraft and some “Dynasty”- or Tyler Perry-level soap operatics. RZA’s direction lacks visual personality, but he keeps the narrative moving and elicits strong performances from his cast. The rap battle and poetry slams take place in settings that are brightly lit and — a few tetchy spats…