Jay-Z’s retirement bash at Madison Square Garden in 2003 was one of hip-hop’s most impressive nights, not just for the lineup, but for the quality of the Brooklyn native’s sensational, hit-laden perf. “Fade to Black” goes beyond documenting what may or may not be Jay-Z’s final concert — pop star retirements being so rarely permanent — and captures the making of Jay-Z’s “The Black Album” and his reflections on a short, yet significant career. Pic should open well in niche areas but true success will be found in the DVD bins.
Rap is dominated by performers who can work magic in studios, but few who can command a stage for a set comparable to those delivered by rock and R&B stars. Jay-Z (real name: Shawn Carter) drafts a parade of partners to duet with him — g.f. Beyonce, Missy Elliot, R. Kelly, Foxy Brown, Pharrell Williams and others — in front of a band led by Roots drummer ?uestlove (arguably the coolest musician in all of hip-hop). The hits — “H.I.Z.Z.O.,” “Summertime,” “Hard Knock Life,” “Dead Presidents,” “Best of Both Worlds” and a freestyle goof on LL Cool J’s “I Need Love” — all receive primo perfs, though one would think that if dancers could be brought out for Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” singers could, too, instead of using a prerecorded backing track.
Enlightening aspect of docu, though, rests in watching Jay-Z at work in studios around the country, listening to beats and melodies and almost instantly creating a rhyme. His head rocks, his face contorts and he lets the lyrics fly; that he never writes down his lyrics and just goes to town in the vocal booth mystifies Rick Rubin and Beastie Boy Mike D. In their presence, he creates what would become a smash hit, “99 Problems.”
Film is bookended with cliched overhead shots of Manhattan that are supposed to suggest his view is from the top of the world. Smartly directed by Pat Paulson and Michael John Warren and nicely lensed, the material sufficiently establishes the rarefied air Jay-Z occupies.