As is duly noted in the chorus of the catchiest of the songs used in Hustle & Flow: It’s hard out here for a pimp. Especially when said pimp only has three girls working for him (one pregnant, all with pretty lousy attitudes), his car has no air conditioning, and he’s sliding into a mid-life crisis. In Craig Brewer’s hot and sticky Memphis homebrew of a film, the pimp is far from what we’re used to seeing. He’s not a character of impossible swagger or campy ridicule (no fur coats, it’s too damn hot). He’s just DJay, a guy stuck in his way of life because he came from nothing but has a gift for bullshit that lends itself to the profession. As personified by Terrence Howard, this pimp becomes far more than the sum of the job’s cliches, even if the film itself doesn’t always know how to be quite as original as its star.

Until recently, Howard has been one of American film’s mostly unnoticed gems. A journeyman actor since the early ’90s, he came into his own in Malcolm Lee’s romantic comedy The Best Man, in which he served as the sleepy-eyed provocateur, wisely watching all the fools who surrounded him, goading them into fury by slyly undercutting their fantasies with his keenly observed truths. It was one of that year’s great performances, but being mired in such a conventional work (not to mention being in a black film aimed at black audiences, and thus mostly invisible to the critical establishment), he never received his due. He’s worked steadily since then, coming into his own with this year’s Crash – turning in an open wound of a performance that stood out even in that film’s excellent ensemble. In Hustle & Flow, he’s found a role that puts him in the spotlight, and he grabs the role tight with both hands, though never so showily as to make you notice how hard he’s really working.

As DJay, Howard to play not just a frustrated dreamer, but someone so down and out he doesn’t even know what it was like to dream. He drives his ragged girls around, mocked by one as a glorified chauffeur, deals some weed on the side and uses his tamped-down smarts to give the girls pep talks just to keep them working. At one point in his past, he was actually a DJ, and at the same time as Skinny Black (Howard’s Crash costar Ludacris, in a role he could literally play sleeping), who has since hit huge nationwide as the next big Dirty South rapper – a fact that irritates DJay to distraction, stuck in his firetrap house with no prospects.

Although writer/director Craig Brewer is skilled enough to keep us interested just following DJay rolling around the Memphis streets as he works his hustles, the film proper begins when he happens to run into Key (Anthony Anderson), an old school buddy who’s now a music producer. They’ve barely said goodbye when DJay shows up at Key’s door, hat in hand, and not long after when DJay is converting a room of his house to setting up a music studio. The rest of the film follows a somewhat predictable arc, as DJay assembles his songs from the materials at hand – using one of his girls for vocals, getting a white kid who stocks vending machines to help produce – spitting out the anger of an entire life into his rhymes, then plotting how to get his demo tape into the hand of Skinny Black, whom he’s going to approach at a big Fourth of July party.

For all the stock items that make up the bulk of Hustle & Flow – and there are plenty of them, from moments of cheesy musical inspiration to hooker histrionics – Brewer is a generous enough director to allow his actors plenty of room. This results in a number of fine moments, especially between DJay and Nola (Taryn Manning), the girl who seems to be providing most of his income, as well as whenever DJay revs up his mouth to make a sell. And although there’s a patch where the film appears to be sliding into third-act plot desperation, somehow it pulls through, surpassing all the pimp and wannabe-a-rap-star shtick. Instead the film leaves behind a picture of a man who doesn’t know what he wants, except that so far his own bad luck has kept him from it, and that the world hasn’t exactly lived up to even the limited promise of the Memphis ghetto.

The DVD includes a commentary from Brewer, several making-of docs, and footage from the Memphis premiere.

And then you got the flows.