Fade to Black

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It was only right that Jay-Z would make a movie. Hell, in the past year, the man’s retired, unretired, recorded and bitterly backed out of a tour with alleged sex offender R. Kelly.

Fortunately for Jay-Z, the twists on his roller coaster of a year can’t derail the energy that crackles throughout Fade to Black. The documentary tracks not only the recording of his The Black Album, it also captures last year’s groundbreaking Madison Square Garden concert, which sold out in two hours and raised funds for the Christopher Wallace Foundation, a nonprofit organization named in memory of slain rapper the Notorious B.I.G.

“We in the Garden,” Jay-Z says. “It might not be a big deal for pop acts. But for hip hop, it’s a big fuckin’ deal.”

The rapper peppers the film with reflections on his life and career, but the narration does little more than usher in concert scenes and studio footage; the latter is where the movie’s real meat can be found.

It was a smart move for director Michael John Warren to add the studio footage. Jay-Z is a beast lyrically, but watching the curse-laden concert on film ain’t the same as being there. True, the camaraderie among the A-list of celebrity guests — Beyonce Knowles, Mary J. Blige, pre-dispute R. Kelly — feels like the late ’80s tour of Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince and Run-DMC. But the studio footage gives the documentary its depth.

A true lab rat, Jay-Z’s work ethic is contagious. He makes Neptunes producer Pharrell Williams program a track on the spot, instead of choosing from his grab bag of pre-programmed music. Jay-Z’s colleague Timbaland offers up three different beats before the rough instrumental to “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” twists Jay’s face to ugly delight.

The weakest moment is a brief, contrived conversation with A Tribe Called Quest frontman Q-Tip. The film makes up for it by showing two conversations that capture the candor that has endeared fans to Jay-Z for almost a decade.

A younger rapper, in a debate with Jay-Z, argues that he dislikes rhyming about violence, but feels compelled to do so because listeners want to hear it.

“Yo, put the camera on me,” Jay-Z says. “You hear this? See what y’all did to rappers? They scared to be they self.”

A debate that follows, in the same studio, puts Jay-Z’s feet to the fire. A friend challenges Jay-Z, suggesting that the emcee’s stories about the hood sets a misleading example for kids.

“B, that’s really me, though” Jay-Z says, leaning into a table, his voice cracking passionately.

It might be you, the friend says, “But you not sayin’ it in-in a way that’s tellin’ them not to do it. You makin’ cats in the hood do that shit.”

The moment captures the glamour, and the controversy, of Jay-Z’s career, more than any moment on stage.

Khary Kimani Turner writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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