Chris Rock, as you may have noticed, is having a moment. His new movie, Top Five — which he wrote, directed, and stars in, as a hacky superstar comedian meandering through a day of reckoning — is in theaters next week. And ahead of its release, he’s everywhere, from the New York Times to New York magazine to The New Yorker (and also publications that aren’t specific to one corner of the tristate area!), tumbling out with considered, dramatic, and hilarious opinions on Bill Cosby, Ferguson, class anxiety; being insightful about his career, being lovely about his family, being all-encompassing about America; and, in general, giving the kind of interviews that remind us that holy fucking shit, there is only one Chris Rock, god bless the king Chris Rock.
These kinds of moments sometimes happen in the careers of those we long presumed to know in full. Rock turns 50 in February. He’s been with us for more than two decades. And yet all advance press seems to indicate that he’s now done something he’s never done before: express himself as brilliantly onscreen as he’s long done — over and over — on the stand-up stage.
In the New Yorker piece, the question is asked: “Can Chris Rock make the leap from standup eminence to leading man?” And then, pretty quickly, it’s answered: Uh, yeah, bro.
“For many people who knew Rock, his underwhelming film career was something of a running joke,” Kelefa Sanneh writes. “[Nelson] George remembers that filmmaker friends of his used to say, ‘We love Chris, but he really shouldn’t direct anymore’ … Neal Brennan … has known Rock for more than a decade [and] says that for years he was puzzled by the disjunction between Rock’s meticulously written standup sets and his seemingly tossed-off movies — everything he wrote, produced, or directed had been, essentially, a high-concept remake. ‘He likes being blue-collar: he likes that his dad was blue-collar, and he brought that blue-collar ethic to standup,’ Brennan says. ‘But he never brought that blue-collar ethic to movies. This is the first time … he did it.”
That, more or less, even for the man himself, is the going narrative: Chris Rock has finally figured it out on the big screen. Which is both true and not. Because I’d like to talk to you now about a movie called CB4.
Released in 1993, CB4 was, effectively, a This Is Spinal Tap for hip-hop. Cowritten (with Nelson George) and coproduced by Rock, it was his first starring role. (The director was Tamra Davis, who is married to Mike D of the Beastie Boys and has one of the craziest and greatest filmographies you’ll ever encounter: She also did Half Baked, Billy Madison, and Britney Spears’s Crossroads).
Rock was just 28 years old at the time, and fresh off his third and final season of a largely ignored SNL run. Why, exactly, was anyone letting him make a movie? (Lorne Michaels was in no way, shape, or form involved.) One answer is that it was a cheap enough gamble to take on a talented young kid. Another answer is that it rode a strange, now aggressively anachronistic wave of rushed rapsploitation.
In its March 14, 1993 edition, the L.A. Times covered the trend: “Rap Attack, Take Two: Nearly a decade after a spate of breakdancing duds, the big screen’s gettin’ busy — with 3 films in the genre coming out.” In the piece, Steven Gomer, the director of the then-upcoming rap drama Fly by Night, remembers “[v]arious people … telling us … ‘Oh, you gotta do this right now, because if you don’t get this picture out in a week, then this is gonna go away.’” “I think Hollywood is waiting to see whether this increasingly popular and decidedly rebellious culture is going to kind of wash over them,” adds Sean Daniel, an executive producer on CB4. “But I think you ignore this at your own peril.”
Top Five is littered with rap talk: The title refers to the characters’ constant rankings of their top all-time MCs. But it’s an explicitly nostalgic look; at 49 years old, Rock is old enough to remember the prehistoric, parties-in-the-Bronx-parks era of hip hop. In 1993, though, he was a thoroughly of-his-times rap fan obsessed, like everyone else, with N.W.A.
“Good gangsta rap,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer at the time, when asked about his favorite music. “Bad gangsta rap is just really bad. They kinda look like N.W.A. They curse a lot. But it’s no real point to it.” And he was, then as now, an aware participant: “Biggest rap against gangsta rap: ‘The whole view on women is kinda pathetic.’” Funny, smart, self-conscious, and with all the misplaced self-confidence of the overly young: If you’re making a rap satire, all good ingredients to possess.
In CB4, Rock plays Albert, a skinny suburban nerd obsessed with the hard-core Compton sound. In one early scene, he’s watching Ice Cube music videos in his parents’ living room with his comely hippie girlfriend (played by Rachel True, also known as Half Baked’s Mary Jane!) when Wacky Dee comes on. An excellently dumb MC Hammer parody, Wacky Dee — to Albert’s utter disgust, and to the great delight of Albert’s girlfriend and family — hops around shirtless in ballooning genie pants endlessly boasting of his dance-floor prowess: “There’s no question I can dance … I can dance in my pants … Did I mention before that I can dance?!”
Albert, see, is obsessed with the real. But he and his crew are just regular folks. His DJ, Otis, has to help his young sisters with their homework. His co-MC Euripides humps out a living as a passive-aggressive phone-sex operator. (“Yeah, yeah, I’m licking your balls. You got King Kong balls. You got … you just got big balls.”) They drive around, in echoes of Wayne’s World, endearingly lip-syncing to “King of Rock.” And at the local club, owned by the town’s resident bad man Gusto (played by a way, way pre–Chappelle Show Charlie Murphy), they try out ill-conceived stage identities: the Mad Bohemians, the Overweight Lovers, and, a personal favorite, the Bagheads. (“The Bagheads! The Bagheads!”)
And then, while watching Gusto get taken down in a drug bust, Albert has his stroke of genius. He’ll steal Gusto’s identity, and rebrand himself and his buddies as ex-cons who’ve left the bars of Cell Block 4 as ethically bankrupt IDGAF kings. And — it totally works! Off their hit debut single, “Straight Out of Locash,” CB4 becomes America’s new Tipper Gore–nightmare sensation. The group sells more albums, we’re told, than Elvis Presley and Coretta Scott King combined.
To rewatch it now is to enjoy an abundance of period charms. In testimonials, Eazy-E, Ice-T, and Ice Cube praise the bona fides of CB4. (Cube, on running into MC Gusto but being too timid to say hi: “I ain’t wanna trip. I’ll catch him at a swap meet or something.”) We got young skinny Shaq, in a CB4 hat, and the Butthole Surfers, singing the praises of CB4’s follow-up single, “Sweat of My Balls.” Underutilized as they are, the casting of Chris Elliott — as the CB4-obsessed dork documentary director (“This is my first drive-by!”), A. White — and Phil Hartman — as the moralizing politician on a self-serving anti-CB4 crusade — is absolutely perfect.
Otis (played by Deezer D) becomes Stab Master Arson. Euripides (played by Allen Payne, now a regular of anodyne Tyler Perry sitcoms) becomes Dead Mike. And together they obey the first rule of music parody: Make the fake songs catchy. “Straight Out of Locash” is on-the-nose, over-the-top, and, most important, lovingly stupid: “When I’m in your neighborhood, you better dig a moat / ’Cause I’m coming to slit your motherfuckin’ throat.” “Sweat of My Balls” has Rock declaring himself, “for the ladies,” to be “130 pounds of beef.” With arrests, controversy, betrayal, and the selling of souls, it’s all part of the dramatic CB4 behind-the-music tale.
Eventually, it all falls apart. The real Gusto breaks out of prison and wants his cut of the profits. Albert breaks up the group. Dead Mike gets politicized (“If you spell white man backwards, what does it spell? Pork!”) and goes solo with his single “I’m Black,” which consists entirely of a few minutes of him repeating the title mantra over and over.1
Presumably coincidentally, this echoes an early bit of Richard Pryor’s, from one of his many Ed Sullivan appearances. As recounted in the excellent recent Pryor biography Furious Cool: “Richard … introduced himself as a defiant, in-your-face poet. His first poem consisted of a single word shouted for a full breath as loud as he could: “BLAAAAAAACK!”
The movie falls apart, too. There are silly throwaway sex-scene gags, nonsensical twists, and in general too much concern with wrapping up a plot we were never really paying attention to. The crux of the thing is that first basic idea: Chris Rock as Albert, the nerd, shredding to bits all stone-faced, self-important, harder-than-thou handling of rap music. He loves hip-hop, clearly, and he takes the piss out of it beautifully. And so if we are now sweeping all of Chris Rock’s movie misadventures together under the rug, let’s at least give CB4 a minute in the sunshine.
Even while acknowledging Top Five as a latter-career breakthrough, it should also be said that Rock didn’t have anything left to prove. Off the bulk of the stand-up material alone — from the debut album, 1991’s Born Suspect, to the breakthrough special, 1996’s Bring the Pain, and on through the steady torrent of classic material, up to and including this year’s SNL host monologue — he’s a legend forever. But there’s much more.
The Chris Rock Show aired for five fairly brilliant seasons on HBO. Years later, Rock would use his capital to engineer Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell; sadly short-lived, that program still did its part to chip away at the white-dude-talk-show-host monopoly. Everybody Hates Chris went for four seasons, a family show that craftily managed to land somewhere between the acerbic, existential-crisis-all-of-the-time drama of Louie and the sentimental pap that dominates the rest of the genre. Good Hair was a sneakily subversive documentary that did it right, biting off a small piece by way of making its big point. And we don’t have to go full-on revisionist Studio 8H historians to point out that Rock’s maligned SNL run did have its moments.
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His latter days, though, had a stasis to them. There was still a through line of him making interesting acting choices, from Nurse Betty on down to 2 Days in New York. But there was also a lot of easy schlock, and it wasn’t a stretch to imagine him continuing to knock out brilliant specials every few years while rotely slotting throwaway movie paychecks in between. What to Expect When You’re Expecting? Grown Ups?! Grown Ups 2?!!
Appropriately, it was on the set of that last film that he wrote Top Five, and changed it all up. From The New Yorker:
“I’m No. 3 on the call sheet: [Adam] Sandler, Kevin James, and me,” he said, then reconsidered. “I might even have been four” — behind Salma Hayek, who played Sandler’s wife. “Which means I had so many days off.” He was staying in a rented waterfront house, which he turned into a one-man writer’s retreat. “I’m literally looking at the ocean, like fuckin’ Hemingway, writing longhand.”
It’s the fifth feature film that Rock has written. The previous three were Down to Earth, Head of State, and I Think I Love My Wife, all respectfully recognized and duly ignored. The first is CB4, now, and probably forevermore, the strangest curio in his career.
What’s next up? In The New Yorker, he talks specifically of making a big, ambitious Nat Turner movie, which would be outstanding and a completely bonkers project for him to take on. In general, he says: “Even if [Top Five] doesn’t make a dime, I’ve figured out the tone of movie I should be in.”
A few years back, though, on Sway’s radio show, he spoke of another potential project, one we can only also hope might one day make it to screen. “There may be a new CB4,” he says. “You never know. We’re kicking around some ideas … when we made it, we never dreamed that rappers would be old. We never dreamed! I know a bunch of senior rappers — Rakim, and Big Daddy Kane and whatever … I think I might wanna do something from that perspective. To be, like, a grown man rapper? [And] why do a new group when you got this group with all this history?” Sway, trying too hard not to geek out, has to move to wrap up the segment. But not before Chris lets one more aside fly: “Straight outta Locash!”
This article has been updated to reflect that CB4 includes Chris Rock & Co. lip-syncing to “King of Rock,” not “Sucker M.C.’s.”