Chris Rock is the wittiest and most dynamic comedian working the American concert stage today because the man's got some major league balls. Rock scorches the earth with fiery, razor-sharp rants without much concern for the body count. In "Bigger & Blacker," the budding superstar of stage and screens both large and small takes no prisoners in a wickedly original, brutally honest hour of sheer observational brilliance.

Chris Rock is the wittiest and most dynamic comedian working the American concert stage today because the man’s got some major league balls. In a standup game dominated by disingenuous, raunchy blowhards and bad boys who tiptoe through the minefield of political correctness, Rock scorches the earth with fiery, razor-sharp rants without much concern for the body count. In “Bigger & Blacker,” the budding superstar of stage and screens both large and small takes no prisoners in a wickedly original, brutally honest hour of sheer observational brilliance.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Rock’s decision to continue courting controversy with a kind of diatribe of racial and social commentary that he delivers in this special is that the guy legitimately has something to lose. With blossoming film (“Lethal Weapon IV”) and TV (“Saturday Night Live,” HBO’s “The Chris Rock Show”) careers as well as a new comedy CD hitting stores Tuesday, the safe move would have been to tone down the act a tad so as to avoid turning off the mainstream.

That Rock instead literally cranks up the volume and risks tarnishing his nonthreatening image with “Bigger & Blacker” is a testament to his courage as a performer, not to mention his dedication to his comedic convictions over commercial interests.

And yet, it must also be said that Rock’s third comedy special for HBO clearly isn’t up to the level of the his second, 1996’s “Bring the Pain.”

Perhaps comparisons are futile and unfair, however, because “Pain” — which earned Rock a pair of Emmy Awards — was one of the truly remarkable hours of comedy ever to air on television. It was to Rock what the Motown 25th anniversary special was to Michael Jackson, transforming Rock from a respected but largely unmarketed standup to the front burner of comedy’s future.

By contrast, “Bigger & Blacker” — while boasting moments of utter magnificence — is louder, angrier and coarser than “Bring the Pain,” and it also has Rock padding the material with bits scarcely unchanged from “Pain.”

Maybe it’s the setting at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theatre (taped June 17-19), but Rock seems almost to be trying to counter his rep for displaying both edge and baby-faced charm. What he serves up instead is essentially a heated tirade against all that ain’t right with the social fabric of America.

Along the way, Rock unfurls some clever new perspectives on such longtime fave topics/targets as relationships (“A man is basically as faithful as his options”), racism (“Whoever you hate will end up in your family”), white angst (“There still ain’t a white guy in here who would trade places with me — and I’m rich”), family (“Nobody cares about daddies”) and black Americans (“Fat black women are the only people who like who they are”).

Rock also gets in some cleverly targeted blasts at the post-Columbine High view of youth violence (“Who gives a (damn) what those boys were watchin’? Whatever happened to, ‘They’re crazy’?”), gun control (“Charge $5,000 for each bullet and you’ll see gun control”), AIDS (“It won’t ever be cured, because the money ain’t in the cure, it’s in the medicine”) and even Jerry Lewis’ Labor Day telethon (“When are you gonna cure something already, Jerry?”).

The act is laced with at least as much profanity as is typical for Rock, though coming from his intelligent perch it rarely feels gratuitous. There is also surely plenty here to rile up folks, in particular Rock’s suggestion that blind people get rid of their guide dogs and hire midgets instead. Still, if you like your comedy to be breathtakingly brash and candid, Rock remains the gold standard for the new millennium.

Only a single caveat: If Rock isn’t careful, his uncompromisingly raucous style could begin to eclipse his considerable substance.

Chris Rock: Bigger & Blacker

HBO; Sat. July 10, 11:15 p.m.

Production

Taped at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, N.Y., by HBO. Executive producers, Chris Rock, Michael Rotenberg, Sandy Chanley; producer, Tom Bull; director, Keith Truesdell; writer, Rock; production designer, Bruce Ryan; art director, Eric Larson; production mixer, Hugh Healy; lighting, Allen Branton. 60 MIN.

Cast

Guest appearances: Slick Rick, Doug E. Fresh, D. Life Announcer: Monteria Ivey

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