In a trademark act of business savvy, Jay-Z elevated the making and release of last year's The Black Album to the level of a pop-culture event. Channeling his inner P.T. Barnum, he helped propel expectations and hype to astronomical levels by suggesting that The Black Album would be his recording swan song. Of course, few in hip-hop imagined that he'd actually retire, and since then, he's put out another album—the seemingly ill-fated R. Kelly collaboration Unfinished Business—and embarked on a troubled tour to support it.
But before validating everyone who'd suggested that his retirement talk was a marketing ploy, Jay-Z famously sold out Madison Square Garden for a benefit concert paying tribute to his life and career. The disingenuously titled concert film Fade To Black documents that benefit, with a loving homage that mostly benefits Jay-Z—or, more specifically, his healthy ego. Fade To Black crisscrosses through time, alternating between the concert and footage of Jay-Z listening to prospective beats for The Black Album, which was recorded with an all-star lineup of superproducers, including Rick Rubin, Pharrell Williams, Timbaland, and Kanye West. Beyond offering a valuable look at Jay-Z's creative process, the behind-the-scenes material complements the concert footage, showing the work that allows Jay-Z to entertain tens of thousands of fans live.
Live hip-hop is often a dicey proposition—what sounds transcendent on record often sounds muddy and indecipherable in concert—but Jay-Z is a stellar live performer whose stage work sounds nearly as crisp and clear as his albums. Even when showcasing his rapid-fire flow, he's lucid and decipherable, in sharp contrast to his guest Twista, who's famous for being the world's fastest rapper, but whose performance in Fade To Black suggests that he's actually the world's fastest unintelligible rapper. Throughout the show, guests join Jay-Z to represent key points in his career, from Mary J. Blige to Foxy Brown to ?uestlove, who leads a stellar live band. They all know that their role is to make Jay-Z look good, not upstage him, but Beyoncé Knowles comes perilously close to stealing the show with a scorchingly sexy three-song set that's perversely interrupted by non-scorchingly sexy footage of Ghostface wandering around backstage in a purple bathrobe. Still, it's always clear who the central attraction is.
Jay-Z remains one of the few rappers with a catalog deep enough to carry a concert film. Embodying the almost comic arrogance that is every great rapper's birthright, he possesses the chutzpah and ambition to posit a big night in his career as a giant step forward for hip-hop, yet he also has the talent and laid-back charisma to pull it off.