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TV Movie Review: Lifetime's Salt-N-Pepa Biopic

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Rap duo Salt-N-Pepa were hit machines in the 1980s and '90s with huge songs like "Let's Talk About Sex," their collaboration with En Vogue, "Whatta Man," and "Push It."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUSH IT")

SALT-N-PEPA: (Rapping) Salt-N-Pepa's here, and we're in effect. Want you to push it, babe, coolin' (ph)...

MARTIN: Tonight, the cable channel Lifetime is airing a new scripted biopic about the pioneering group known as the first ladies of hip-hop. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans has this review.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Before we talk about what Lifetime's movie "Salt-N-Pepa" is, let's spend a moment on what it is not. It is not a prestige project filled with big names destined to become a darling of highbrow critics. But it is a scrappy, fun, emotional look at a group that challenged the male-centered rap world and sold more than 15 million records powered by some of the hippest tunes in rap history.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOOP")

SALT-N-PEPA: (Singing) I wanna shoop (ph), baby, shoop.

DEGGANS: Like any good origin story, Lifetime's Salt-N-Pepa" soars highest when documenting early success. In the mid-'80s, Cheryl Salt James was dating an aspiring producer, Hurby Luv Bug Azor, who had a million-dollar idea. Back in the day, up-and-coming rap acts got attention by cutting diss tracks - catchy singles that insulted big stars. But when Salt got a friend who worked with her at Sears to rap on Hurby's diss track, Sandra Pepa Denton wasn't so sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SALT-N-PEPA")

LAILA ODOM: (As Sandra Pepa Denton) Yo, are you sure you want me to say everything on this page?

CLEVELAND BERTO: (As Hurby Azor) Yeah. Why?

ODOM: (As Sandra Pepa Denton) Because we dissin' (ph) Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick. And me and she ain't no rappers. They're going to be, like, who is these girls dissin' us?

BERTO: (As Hurby Azor) That's the exact point. This track is going to get us recognized. Hip-hop is all about attitude, all right? We got to go in there, let them know we're here, and we ain't scared. All right? They come here with the show, we come with "The Showstopper."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SHOWSTOPPER")

SALT-N-PEPA: (Singing) Please, please, please don't stop. Please, please please...

DEGGANS: The song that resulted, "The Showstopper," got play on New York City radio and provided their name.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SHOWSTOPPER")

SALT-N-PEPA: (Rapping) All right, now. I'm going to show you how it's supposed to be 'cause (ph) we, the Salt and Pepa MCs, will chance...

DEGGANS: The film drops all kinds of cool tidbits. Early on, they worked in one of the most star-studded Sears call centers of all time. Comic Martin Lawrence and rap duo Kid 'n Play answered phones there, too, before they got famous. Neither Salt nor Pepa were all that excited about rapping until Hurby pushed them. And when Pepa caught Hurby cheating on Salt in a club, he called her the worst insult he could think of - ghetto.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SALT-N-PEPA")

BERTO: (As Hurby Azor) I don't do ghetto. I let those other rappers be gangsta nasty because what I found out is the music you make reflects the life you live. You say anything about the night, I'll drop you quicker than a teenage flop.

ODOM: (As Sandra Pepa Denton) That's the best you got? There's nothing I could tell Cheryl that she don't already know.

DEGGANS: For rap fans of a certain age, this film is packed with nostalgia, offering the backstory behind hits like "Shoop," "Push It" and Salt's anthem for creative independence, "Expression."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXPRESSION")

SALT-N-PEPA: (Rapping) Go ahead, girls - express yourself. My party's your party. Go ahead, drop in. Cold hip-hoppin' is always rockin' (ph). Don't you like it when the music drop?

DEGGANS: Executive produced by Queen Latifah and directed by Mario Van Peebles, the film is a bit more ambitious and authentic than many biopics. That this movie is coming from female-centered cable channel Lifetime instead of an outlet focused on Black viewers like BET, TV One or OWN is important. It shows how essential Black viewers, especially Black women, have become to traditional cable channels.

Best of all, the film deploys classic elements of all Lifetime movies - female friendships found, lost and found again, abusive, cheating men shown the door. But they're in service of a different story - to give props to a legendary group whose history should have been told like this long before now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXPRESSION")

SALT-N-PEPA: (Rapping) Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

DEGGANS: I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXPRESSION")

SALT-N-PEPA: (Rapping) You know life, oh, yeah, is all about expression. You only live once, and you're not coming back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.