Dir: Patrick Paulson and Michael John Warren
For years I dissed Jay-Z, considering him to be the paragon of cheesy status-fixated rappers. Recently I’ve changed my opinion, and this movie was a big part of the change.
In 2003 Jay-Z released the Black Album, a quintessential epic. In years to come, when we think of hip hop the way we think of jazz today, you’ll find that everyone has a copy of the Black Album, the same way that every one of our parents have a copy of Bitches Brew or Giant Steps.
In the Black Album, Jay-Z created an record he conceived of as his farewell. A collection of beats hand-selected from the greatest producers all graced with Jay-Z’s smooth rhymes. Fade to Black mixes shots of Jay-Z’s creation of the album with concert shots from his sold out
The show sold out in several hours, and an explosive crowd of hometown fans are on hand to say goodbye to Jay. After a heart-racing opening, Jay blazes through several of the big hits as the audience chants every single word. Backed by ?uestlove (from the Roots) and the Illadelponics for live versions of many of his hits, Jay controls a crowd of tens of thousands with the poise of a master.
We also get to see Jay creating the album – an astounding process. Unlike other rappers who write and rewrite, Jay listens to a beat, pauses for a few moments, walks into the booth and lays down complex multi-layered rhymes almost always in a single take. We see Jay picking beats from Pharrell, Just Blaze, Timbaland and Kanye West, where he waits for the perfect beat and then simply starts rhyming.
There is a great scene where we see Jay and Rick Rubin create the hit song 99 problems. Rubin, the producer behind the early Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, and Run DMC records created a gritty guitar-laden track for Jay to recreate the sound of 1988. Ad Rock, one of the Beastie Boys, drops by and they stand in amazement while Jay creates a classic off the top of his head.
The concert includes wonderful collaborations, including four with queens of hip hop. Of all of them Beyonce’s collaboration seems the most flaccid despite the legion of backup dancers and the status as Jay’s fiancé. Missy Elliot rocks out a couple of times taking turns on the microphone with HOVA and Twista. Mary J. Blige offers a wonderful chorus and contrast to Jay, but it is the nasty Foxy Brown who tears it up (after she fixes her bustier) causing the entire auditorium to seemingly explode.
Many of the stars of the Roc-a-fella family (Jay’s label) get great verses during the concert. Memphis Bleek and Freeway both offer strong showings among the occasionally unclear mutterings of Beanie Sigel. The Wu Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah gets a chance to do his collaboration with Beyonce, using the opportunity to showcase his gritty style. It also gives him a chance to rock his big jewelry, he shows up for the show with a piece of gold the size of a dinner plate around his neck. In a great scene, we see eighties hip hop legend Slick Rick loading his gigantic gold chains around Ghostface’s neck before he hits the stage sending him out eighty pounds heavier.
Many lost hip hop legends get their shout outs. A montage of the greatest hits of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls get a special showing when the entire audience chants the words a cappella in memoriam. It is clear that the audience contains fans, and the film does a good job of cutting to audience members who mouth the words perfectly.
The stereotypes about hip hop die slowly and one that this film slays is that hip hop concerts simply can’t rock. When Jay rocks a beat that bounces it is clear from the audience members in the rafters that they are moving. For documentary value and for sheer musical bang this film is a must see.