Friday, February 20, 2015

Top Five...and Dell's Top Five

Directed by Chris Rock.
2014. Rated R, 102 minutes.
Chris Rock
Rosario Dawson
Gabrielle Union
J.B. Smoove
Sherri Shepherd
Kevin Hart
Tracy Morgan
Hassan Johnson
Anders Holm
Ben Vereen
Adam Sandler
Jerry Seinfeld
Whoopi Goldberg

I've had a hot and cold relationship with Chris Rock as a performer. I first heard about him when I was a teenager and he was in his early twenties. He popped up on some late night talk show doing stand-up. I think it was The Tonight Show, with Johnny Carson of course, but it's been so many years that I can't be sure. The point is, I really didn't find him all that funny. The same goes for the couple of times I happened to see him on TV over the next few years. Then in 1989, Rock did a cameo in a movie called I'm Gonna Git You Sucka. He was the "one rib" guy, and it was absolutely hilarious. He followed that up by becoming a cast member on Saturday Night Live, creating some very funny characters during his stay, and turning in a surprisingly good performance as Pookie in New Jack City. A couple years after that, he made the 'hood classic CB4, a movie I still love. Then, his movie career went through a few peaks and lots of valleys. However, during this time I started seeing more of his stand-up and each time he cracked me up. I was now a lover of his stand-up, but not necessarily a big fan of his cinematic work. Since this movie was all about a guy who is great at stand-up, but has a floundering movie career, I was very much interested in seeing Top Five, in seeing what Chris Rock had to say about himself.

We meet Rock's character, Andre Allen, as he's walking down a New York street doing an interview with reporter Chelsea Brown (Dawson) of the New York Times. He hates the Times because they have a critic who seems to take pleasure in blasting every one of his movies. However, he has a new film to promote and this promises to be a puff piece so he reluctantly agrees to do it. He rose to fame dressed up as "Hammy," a bear who is also a police officer. He's made three of these films and a ton of money from them. People are clamoring for part four, but he wants to do something more relevant. Therefore, his latest movie is a complete departure from everything he's known for. It's about a slave uprising in Haiti, nothing even remotely comedic about it. People are also wondering two other things about him. First, and foremost, if he is ready for the gigantic wedding he's about to have on live television in a few weeks thanks to his relationship with reality TV star Erica Long (Union). Second, they want to know if and when he'll return to doing stand-up. Andre gets really agitated when either subject is brought up which is often. After a rocky start to things, he and the reporter agree to make it a much meatier interview than it was previously going to be. The telling of life stories ensue.

As writer, and in his first return to the director's chair since 2003's lame Head of State, Rock did the prudent thing by focusing primarily on developing his two main characters, Allen and Brown, as opposed to trying to solve plot conflicts. By doing this, the other becomes an organic development rather than just a really long episode of a sitcom like HoS. We get to know these people extremely well and can empathize with their situations. True, our protagonist is a rich superstar having A-lister problems, but we can sense a genuine human being beneath the bravado and bodyguard. It helps immensely that we travel with him back to his old Brooklyn neighborhood and see that even though he's one of their own that made it, his own family and friends aren't completely receptive of him. There is some jealousy and resentment, there. By the same token, we see him kick back and relax with some of those same folks. Through it all, we're learning to like him.

Immediately, we take a shine to Chelsea. She is more representative of us. She has to work hard for whatever she has and is a single mom. During the day, Chelsea's mom looks after the little girl. She's also smart and funny. Through some of the questions she asks her subject, she becomes a conduit for the audience. When this happens, Rock is not just playing Andre Allen, he becomes an amalgamation of just about every actor who has achieved a decent level of fame. Don't you wish you could ask some celebrity or another why they aren't good at what they do? She does and we're thankful for it.

Throughout the course of the interview, and the movie, Top Five holds a mirror up to us. The biggest target is our infatuation with and pigeon-holing of celebrities. The celebs are not exempt from examination, either. We see some of the ways in which they attract attention to themselves even if they don't mean to. We also get a look at race within the Hollywood system and addiction. The looks at celebrophilia and race are the funniest. When we focus on addiction is when the movie is at its heaviest. It's passed off as alcoholism, but it's more about addiction to the spotlight. This is true not only in Andre's case, but in the case of his fiance, as well.

As great as I think this movie is, there are some flaws. Earlier, I mentioned how Top Five avoids becoming an extended sitcom. However, because the movie is built largely on people sharing stories it is extremely episodic. It can occasionally feel like a string of sketches with a story wrapped around them. This allows for the film to go off on tangents. Generally, these are funny, as in the part of the movie where we accompany our hero to satellite radio giant Sirius XM to promote his movie on a bunch of different radio stations. We laugh, and it does contain some poignant moments, but feels strangely disconnected from the rest of the movie. Aside from that, the movie suffers just a bit from the same thing every other romantic-comedy struggles with: it can get a bit predictable.

Where our story is going, however, is much less important than us becoming immersed in the world Top Five creates. Our cast does a wonderful job breathing life into all of this. Rock turns in a really nice performance. It's arguably some of his best work. Honestly though, I'd dock him a few points for simply playing himself. Rosario Dawson, on the other hand, does the bulk of the emotional lifting and does it very well. She and Rock have a nice chemistry that makes the ups and downs of the day they spend together believable. Rock's character and the movie as a whole is grounded by the work of those who play his old neighborhood friends and family. Sherri Shepherd, Tracy Morgan, and Hassan Johnson all deliver genuine feeling performances in limited roles. Add in an outrageous, over the top turn by Cedric the Entertainer and hilarious cameos by Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Gabourey Sidibe, and above all, rapper DMX, and we have a heartfelt rom-com that keeps us in stitches and has a little more than romance on its mind.

Bonus Section!!!


Severe Hip Hop Discussion Ahead!

Unless the movie I'm discussing calls for it, I never talk about music on this blog. True, if you've read my post on Beat Street or Krush Groove and a few others, you may have come to understand that I am a life-long hip hop fan. Well, Top Five affords me the opportunity to speak more directly about that music than I ever have on this site. Once our hero, Andre Allen, arrives at the apartment of an old girlfriend we're introduced to what would become a recurring question in the movie and is where the title comes from. Who are your top five rappers of all time? Various characters, including Jerry Seinfeld playing himself, offer up their own personal list. In keeping with the spirit of the movie, I'll do the same. 

For me, who are the best and who are the greatest are two entirely different questions. The former means who is the most talented. The latter asks us to consider who the best is along with those who have had most impact and success. That's the question I chose to answer. My honorable mentions (in no particular order):

KRS-One, The Notorious B.I.G., Big Daddy Kane, Scarface, Eminem, Tupac Shakur, Lauryn Hill, Chuck D, Melle Mel, MC Lyte, Black Thought, Andre 3000

My Top Five...

The Jigga man has done everything that can be asked of a hip hop artist. He went the hardcore route and released some of the most beloved albums of purists ever. He went the mainstream route and made some of the genre's most successful albums. He mixed the two, and earned critical acclaim. To accomplish this, he freely borrowed from Biggie and Kane. Though he's never acknowledged it, he's also utilized the Naughty By Nature street-ready but radio friendly formula to create a string of hit records. He's survived beef with nearly everyone. Still, its what he's done outside the booth that makes him, in my opinion, the most important rapper of all time. He went from a nickel & dime hustler to a multi-million dollar business mogul who hob knobs with A-listers. He's the first rapper to really show us that if he ever really does decide to retire, he'll be just fine. Hova went in the booth with, in his words, “the flow of all flows" and came out with the American Dream.

LL Cool J
This is probably the most underrated emcee of all time. Whenever arguments break out over the GOAT, his name is often left out. The string of great songs is endless and plenty of great albums go with them. He took the braggadocio element of hip hop to new heights If you think you can out rhyme me, yeah boy I'll bet/ cuz I ain't met a motherfucker who can do that yet! / Trend-setter, I'm better, my rhymes so good / I got a gold name plate that says "I Wish You Would!" Every solo rapper after him pretty much either emulated him in some form or purposely tried to do the opposite of him. He survived not one, but two of hip hop's greatest battles. First, after responding to Kool Moe Dee with Jack the Ripper, the old Treacherous Three vet was still around for a little bit, even came at Cool J a few more times but never really had anymore buzz to him. Pretty much the same would happen a decade later to Canibus. Not to mention run-ins with Ice T & Hammer. This next thing weighs even more heavily in his favor. He's the first, not one of the first, THE FIRST artist ever signed to Def Jam. Without him, Def Jam may never get off the ground. The significant part of that is he released an album as recently as 2014 and has moved on to a solid acting career. However, the thing that mostly keeps him off these types of lists is the very thing that should put him on them. When he released the single I Need Love he gave hip hop romance and real sex appeal. Hardcore heads complained but the ladies ate it up. That one song is the reason why most rap albums that have followed have songs on them engineered toward the fairer sex. And still, nobody gets the honies going like LL.

WHAT??? The God MC is not my #1? Settle down. He's still a great. He's credited with giving the game what's known as flow. I don't quite buy that because the fact is to make a rap song you have to have some kind of flow and ride the beat. He just did it better than most. That also meant he wasn't afraid to rhyme really slow over a slow beat like on Check Out My Melody or rapid fire like on Follow the Leader. Then the content he delivered was and still is unique. He laced his party songs with deep thoughts and his deep songs with party lines. Even some of the doctrine from the 5% nation of Islam crept in but rarely overwhelmed a song. Though not quite on Kane or G Rap's level as far as complexity of structure goes, he wasn't too shabby. Few others can claim to be on his level. And somehow, even when he said something simple in a simple manner, it felt complicated. You, the listener, felt proud to have “gotten it" so easily. He also gave hip hop that all-business persona since Ra has been rarely seen to smile, even in concert. But more than anything, he just delivered iconic line after iconic line after iconic get the picture.

Ice Cube
I know most of young folks only know him as the guy in all the corny family movies. Or from the Friday franchise. Believe it or not, this was once the most feared entertainer in Amerikkka. What gets him here is he is most responsible for the way rap sounded over the last two decades. Gangsta-rap damn near grew from his loins. His group NWA is among the most influential groups of all time, though maybe not the first gangsta-rappers they were right there and easily the most successful of their peers. By all accounts, he wrote the vast majority of the lyrics on their iconic debut Straight Outta Compton, plus the lyrics for Eazy-E's almost as iconic solo outing Eazy-Duz-It As a solo artist, he made two of the most important albums the genre has ever seen Amerikkka's Most Wanted and Death Certificate. What's been mostly lost is the fact that Cube didn't just tell all-out shoot 'em up tales. He gave us the full scope of a young man growing up in South Central LA including positive messages, negative actions and social commentary. If he were a movie director (strangely he's not, yet) then most of his imitators would only copy his action scenes without his nuance for story-telling. This is essentially what a large number of so-called gangsta-rappers have done. To paraphrase Michael Eric Dyson, they've replaced the gangsta's story, which is what Cube told, with the gangsta persona: an endless stream of tough talking for no apparent reason other than sounding tough.

If souls held a physical presence and were labeled within the body, you could cut me open to find mine marked “writer." It's what I love most. How good I am, I'll leave for you to decide. What I've decided about Nas is his is marked the same. And he is a great one. I know that a number of emcees take pride in being able to freestyle, or through methods of memorization, not write down the songs they make. To me, that can easily leave you victim to spouting whatever pops in your head as long as it rhymes, increasing the risk of repetition and saying nonsense in between all the great lines you come up with (I'm looking at you, Li'l Wayne!). Nas writes with great care and passion. He also has lots more on his mind than the average rapper. He has been, at times, insightful, shallow, revolutionary, nihilistic, introspective, arrogant, caring, misogynistic, spiritual, blasphemous, etc. Detractors say it makes him way too self-contradictory. To me, it makes him a whole person. And yes, he can organize it all into what comes out as a ridiculous flow in the booth. His classic debut, Illmatic is still hailed as one of the greatest albums in rap history. His album of just a couple years ago, Hip Hop is Dead is arguably one of its most important. He's survived beef with none other than Jay-Z, with most claiming him the victor before the two settled their differences. His impact is not of others emulating him but more as hip hop's conscience and conversation starter. When Nas says it, it gets talked about and debated endlessly. He's become someone other rappers speak of with reverence. Never the hit maker most of the others on this list are, he has nonetheless become a successful artist in spite of his unwillingness to “dumb it down." Though to be fair, the few attempts he made at mainstream appeal had mostly disastrous results. He needed to be a little different. He needed to experiment. When he did, he gave us Stillmatic which told us, he wasn't going out just trying to make hit singles. If he was going down, it was going to be because “you" didn't get it.


  1. First of all, great review. I really want to see this movie.

    Second, love your Top 5. I listened to a lot of rap in my teens, less so now, but if I had to make a top five, it would look like this:

    5) Nicki Minaj (I know, but I just LOVE her style...)
    4) Nas
    3) Eminem
    2) Ice Cube
    1) B.I.G.

    1. Thanks. Lofty ranking for Nicki, but I like it. Would be really boring if we all had the same top 5 in anything.

    2. I agree with Andrew up there. I really want to see this too and wish I'd had time to get to the theater for it when it first came out. I feel the same way as you about Chris Rock, hot and cold, but some of his stand up is up there with the best stand up ever.

      I rarely listen to hip-hop, and, even when it was "the thing" for suburban white kids like me back in the late 90s, I was still more of a classic rocker. But I have some fond memories.

      Here's a Top Five:

      5. Tupac
      4. Bone Thugs n Harmony
      3. Jay Z
      2. Kanye
      1. Beck

      Beck's flow on the 1999 album "Midnight Vultures" is true artistry at its finest.

    3. Rock is brilliant as a stand up. I really hope you get to see this soon. As for your Top Five, very nice, except I'll own up to never listening to Beck. I'm definitely willing to give it a chance, though.

    4. I was really just trying to make a crack on Kanye. Beck really doesn't belong on a list of hip-hop artists. However, he has and could produce a hip hop album with the best of 'em. His latest album, Morning Phase (that just won the Grammy and brought the douchebag out in Kanye), is the farthest you could possibly get from hip hop. It's rhythmic Americana and beautiful.

      I will definitely get to Top Five soon.

    5. Haha! I'm a moron and misled you in my description of that Beck album. I meant "melodic" not "rhythmic," which would imply that it's an upbeat album. It's not. It's low-key. Anyway...

    6. Lol, it's cool. I'll still check it out.

  2. Great post! I love what you said about Top Five holding up a mirror to us and Chelsea's character being sort of an interlocutor between viewers and celebrities.

    I don't think I've ever seen Chris Rock except in a few short comedy routines, but I thought he was hilarious. I get a big kick out of "Gun Control," particularly the bit about "Bullet Control." He may be onto something there. :-P

    1. Thanks. Chelsea totally is just that. If you enjoyed the short bits of Rock's routines you've seen, then I highly recommend you checking out his full length specials. I'm fairly certain you can find them on YouTube.

  3. Chris Rock is soooooooooooooo funny. I've not seen many of his Hollywood films, but this sounds worth catching. Straight Outta Compton is just incredible. The amount of times I've listened to it!

    1. This is definitely worth catching. Probably the best movie he's ever done with him in the leading role. Just a small correction, though, "Straight Outta Compton" is the NWA classic. You mean "Straight Outta Locash," which is a reworked version of the other song done for CB4. Fun fact: That's not Rock rapping, either. It's Daddy-O of the group Stetsasonic. Rock just lip synced. Taking off my hip hop snob hat, I agree, it's damn funny.

  4. I actually liked Head of State which I thought sort of predicted about what was to come but also that air of fantasy of what happens when a black man runs for president. I'm eager to see this just because I think Chris Rock is very talented and has something more to offer than just the bullshit that he's doing with Adam Sandler. As for MCs, it's not my forte as I'm just a casual hip-hop guy though I do like what Nas and Rakim does as well as what Ice Cube did w/ N.W.A. and in the early 1990s. Jay-Z is hit-and-miss for me while LL was someone I liked early on but I usually see him these days as hip-hop's version of Rod Stewart as an old dinosaur who is catching on trends to remain relevant.

    1. This is much better than what he's been doing with Sandler, but I'm guessing the Grown Ups movies keep the bills paid. Yeah, for my top five I totally went lifetime achievement as opposed to what I think of any of them right this moment.

  5. I'm not the biggest fan of Chris Rock, but Top Five intrigues me, I might give it a rent one day. The premise sounds fun, plus I like Rosario Dawson and I find Cedric hilarious!

    1. It's better than anything Rock has done movie-wise in quite some time. Cedric's part is going to be a love it or hate it part of the film.