Published Nov 01, 2004Some call him the most gifted MC the game has ever seen, but he simply calls himself the luckiest man that ever lived. Jay-Z (aka Shawn Carter) wasn't even in the music industry for a decade before he announced his retirement last year with the release of his eighth album in as many years. ("Retirement" is a funny word for a man currently on tour supporting a brand new post-retirement album). Yet the effect and success he has had certainly gives him reason to do whatever he likes, including hanging up his mic. However, if you know the Jigga Man, you know he wouldn't go out just like that. To inaugurate his status as a full pensioner, the hip-hop mogul felt it necessary to capture it all on tape.
Fade to Black is a film split into two halves: behind the scenes writing and recording The Black Album, and backstage and onstage at his whopping instant sell-out concert at Madison Square Garden. In his opening narration, Jay-Z proudly reflects on the moment, saying, "We at the Garden, nigga. For hip-hop, we wasn't even allowed in the building." By keeping a nice flow between the interweaving footage, directors Paulson and Warren accomplish an interesting style by giving each halves quality time on camera without saturating the film with one over the other.
Studio life is a candid look into how Jigga works, as we see him choosing the right tracks and beats from a bevy of producers such as Timbaland, Pharrell Williams, Kanye West and Rick Rubin. It's interesting to see Jay-Z's relationship with each producer, but it's his journey into Rubin's world that makes for the most fun. At his famed studio in L.A., Jay-Z is amazed at just how strange one of the originators of hip-hop's working environment is. His case is made when he bumps into a large, stuffed creature and exclaims, "When was the last time you seen a bison in a nigga's studio?" The most remarkable thing about the scenes behind his creative process, however, is watching Jay-Z compose his lyrics off the top of his head. As Mike D points out in amazement, "He doesn't write anything down," and it's a real treat seeing someone with this gift at work.
The concert itself is a monumental event for the rapper. From the streets of Brooklyn, the gig is on his terrain and from the hollers he receives when he announces the names of the boroughs, you can tell this is a dedicated audience. Even more so, the fans consistently prove their love for the rapper by astoundingly rapping along to each and every song on the set list. He gives them the spotlight for the entire first verse of "Big Pimpin'," and when he does a tribute to the fallen, the crowd goes ape-shit, taking over the entirety of what he plays from Biggie's "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems."
As a hip-hop gig on the grand scale, the show couldn't happen without a few guests, and Jay-Z doesn't hold out. Everyone from Mary J. Blige, Twista, Missy Elliott and Beanie Siegel to Pharrell, R. Kelly and Ghostface make valuable appearances. Of course, maybe too much attention is given to Beyoncé though, who takes over the concert for three numbers, leading you to wonder if Jay-Z happens to wear any pants at all in the relationship. There is also quite a lot of humour in the camera time devoted to the guests: Ghostface, Pharrell's comparison of Jay-Z's exit to Carlito's Way and of course, Foxy Brown's inability to keep her boobs to herself.
The camera work is well done, opting for more natural docu-style shots that grab glimpses from every possible angle in the front row, onstage, up high in the bleachers or a sneak peek from backstage. The absence of gloss and glamour treat the subjects more like humans than the millionaire superstars often depicted in music videos.
Aside from some questionably pseudo-philosophical voiceovers, Jay-Z has produced a strong film that could have easily slipped into something a little more comfortable, dull and extremely self-absorbed. Jay-Z himself sums up what is captured in Fade to Black with his closing words: "This shit is crazy hot." (Paramount Classics)