Writer-director Craig Brewer, a longtime Memphis resident, drew upon his surroundings to add flavor and atmosphere to his riveting tale about a street hustler who longs for a better life. DJay (Terrence Howard), who shares a house with his hookers — naïve country girl Nola (Taryn Manning), pregnant sweetie Shug (Taraji P. Henson) and trash-talking Lexus (Paula Jai Parker) — recognizes the dead-end realities of his present existence and opts to take a chance on producing his own rap songs. He enlists the aid of both a former friend (Anthony Anderson) whose life has taken a more respectable turn and a scrawny white boy (DJ Qualls) who's a wiz on the beat machine; together, they hope to have a demo tape ready by the time a former Memphis street kid (Ludacris), now a platinum-selling rapper, comes back to town for a visit.
Hollywood convention occasionally bumps up against the movie's more raw aspects, but for the most part, this picture rarely takes a false step as it details the efforts of all its characters (not just Djay) to find some purpose in their lives. Howard, usually cast as urbane villains, is sensational in the leading role, though the film's heart and soul rest in the superlative turns by Manning and Henson as hookers who never allow circumstances to deflate their inner benevolence.