The first thing you might notice when Chris Rock steps on stage in his new stand-up special now streaming on Netflix, Tamborine, is how chill he appears to be. Gone are the (sometimes loud and shiny) suits of the Bigger and Blacker and Never Scared era. Instead, when he steps out on the small, intimate stage of the Brooklyn Academy of Music where it was recorded last fall, he’s dressed in a black tee and charcoal jeans. The way in which he paced the floor and worked a crowd years ago was electric, sometimes bordering on frantic. Here, the delivery is noticeably more subdued.
The energy is different, but Rock is still very funny and occasionally still provocative, if only because the culture has shifted in recent years. (If you happened to catch him during his Total Blackout Tour last year, as I did for one of its final performances, there’s not much new material here.) Immediately he opens on the topic on which he made himself a culturally authoritative voice long ago: race. If cops wanted the public to think they’re not a threat to communities of color, he suggests, they should try shooting a white kid every so often, “just to make it look good.” “I want to live in an equal world … I want to see white mothers on TV crying … standing next to Al Sharpton … talking about, ‘We need justice for Chad!’” He reveals he’s tried to become more religious, though he shuns organized worship. (People who attend church every week do it, he reasons, because they don’t trust God.) And in a riff that might rub some parents and teachers the wrong way, he frowns down upon the concept of “zero tolerance” for bullies in school—“School is supposed to prepare you for life. Life has assholes. And you should learn how to deal with them as soon as possible.”—and dismisses cyberbullying as less harmful than bullying in the classroom. (Tell that to the families of people like Tyler Clementi.)
But mostly, Rock turns his storytelling inward, providing relationship advice to his audience as a means of revealing how his 10-year marriage fell apart. “I was not a good husband. I fucked up,” he admits about halfway through. He’s honest about his cheating and obsessive porn habits, and how it felt to go through a messy, rough divorce and custody battle that involved him having to prove to a family court judge that his daughters had proper sleeping arrangements in his home. (“What have you heard about me?” he cracks. “I’m Chris Rock, not Chris Brown.”) As Tamborine turns into a confessional, you can see why this version of Rock feels way more low-key than his last special nearly a decade ago, and it’s not just because he’s grown a bit older: He’s been through some stuff.