IS JAY-Z hip-hop's Michael Jordan? In November 2003, he released "The Black Album," allegedly his final one, and gave a star-studded "farewell" concert at Madison Square Garden. The show's finale was "December 4th," an introspective autobiographical track whose opening lines are "They say they never really miss you / Till you're dead or you're gone / So on that note I'm leaving after this song." That song, and the concert, ended with this observation from Jay-Z : "If you can't respect that, your whole perspective is wack / Maybe you'll love me when I fade to black."
Ironically, "Fade to Black," a spectacular concert documentary that also gives some fascinating insights into the making of "The Black Album," arrives in theaters after the cancellation of the ill-fated Jay-Z/R. Kelly "Best of Both Worlds" tour, originally scheduled to run through Nov. 28, even as their joint "Unfinished Business" album opened this week at No. 1 on the Billboard chart. And "Collision Course," a mash-up album featuring Jay-Z and rap-rockers Linkin Park is set for release in mid-November.
Retirement, apparently, is a relative term for this producer-fashion designer-club honcho-part owner of the New Jersey Nets and prospective label head (two majors are vying for his services). Retirement rumors? Exaggerated.
Directed by Patrick Paulson and Michael John Warren, "Fade to Black" may well be the best hip-hop concert film to date, far better than "Backstage," which documented Jay-Z's 1999 "Hard Knock Life" tour with DMX. Beautifully shot and brilliantly recorded by Bob Ezrin, it obviously benefits from the fact that Jay-Z is a supremely confident performer and deft lyricist with a masterfully elastic flow and perhaps the most commanding and accessible stage presence of any rap artist. He also has an instinct for finding the best beats from rap's canniest producers.
And watching Jay-Z at work in "Fade to Black," it's clear this 35-year-old takes too much pleasure in his work, and has far too much ambition, to rest on a legacy of 10 albums in seven years and sales of more than 20 million. Jay-Z may well be "the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world in hip-hop," and not just because legendary ring announcer Michael Buffer tells us so at the beginning of the concert as a Roc-A-Fella jersey bearing Jay-Z's name is elevated to the rafters. Jay-Z, who narrates "Fade to Black," says he was "on the biggest stage in the world, with some of the biggest stars in music, and we pulled off the perfect night. This was the ultimate dream growing up in Brooklyn: I went from Marcy [Projects] to Madison Square."
And once there, Jay-Z hosted an all-star affair featuring a who's who of mostly hip-hop stars and some R&B luminaries, as well, notably Mary J. Blige, who duets with Jay-Z on "Can't Knock the Hustle" and offers her own "Song Cry"; Jay-Z's gorgeous squeeze, Beyonce, dancing and singing up a storm on "Crazy in Love" and dueting on "Summertime" with Ghostface Killa, who sports more gaudy jewelry than Mr. T; and R. Kelly on "Best of Both Worlds," in which he and Jay-Z sport splendid white parkas and strike hilarious b-boy poses. Their rapport here led to the ill-fated and just-concluded-in-lawsuits co-headlining tour; on screen, you'd never guess what was coming.
Among those making appearances in making-of-"The Black Album" asides within the film: Timbaland, Pharrell Williams, Rick Rubin and Kanye West, then just months away from becoming a breakout artist in his own right. The ultra-shaggy Rubin is a hoot putting together the rock-rooted "99 Problems" in his mansion studio (it also gets an incendiary concert reading), while Pharrell Williams and Timbaland are both contagiously pleased with the beats they've conjured. Williams later joins Jay-Z on "Give It to Me (I Just Wanna Luv U)."
The concert itself is a high-tech wonder, easily on a par with the best rock shows, and it helps that much of it features Illadelphonic, a seven-piece band fueled and fronted by the Roots' drummer Ahmir "?uestLove" Thompson. There's also the incredible energy of an audience of 19,000 so persistently ecstatic that the concert feels equal parts political rally, aerobics workout, riverside baptism -- a Superbowl of hip-hop. They dance, they sing (with line-for-line shout-alongs) and they absolutely dispute rap's bad reputation in the concert arena.
Throughout, Jay-Z delivers the goods, from banging club anthems such as "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" and harsh street tales like the early "Dead Presidents" to the more contemplative musings that dominated "The Black Album." He gets plenty of cameo support with appearances by Memphis Bleek, Beanie Sigel, Missy Elliott, speed-rapper Twista and near-wardrobe-malfunctioning Foxy Brown.
The concert began with Jay-Z spitting "What More Can I Say?" In truth, he can say a lot more.
FADE TO BLACK (R, 104 minutes) -- Contains pervasive swearing and sexual lyrics. Area theaters.