The deepest moments in this chronicle of Jay-Z’s 2003 Madison Square Garden “retirement” concert come via clips of the megastar working up his supposed swan song, The Black Album. The inscrutable ambition that’s made Shawn Carter one of the strangest mixes of genius and opacity to ever go multiplatinum is on full display as producers like Pharrell, Timbaland, and Kanye West pimp their beats to Jay-Hova. Bouncing and boasting, they hope to provoke the telltale “Rainman” trance that will urban-mythically open into a torrent of fait accompli lyrics. Throughout this beat-plucking process, Fade to Black highlights awed reactions, as when producer Rick Rubin tells Mike D during the inspired “99 Problems” session, “Watch this. He doesn’t write anything down. I’ve never seen anything like it.” The bangin’ charity revue features a sublime mix of hip-hop luminaries: Beyoncé as funky Tina in black sequins has never cooked hotter, white-parka’d R. Kelly croons like he’s already been taken up, Mary J. Blige makes the song cry, and Foxy Brown proves nothing comes between her and her chinchilla. But despite Fade‘s interview aphorisms and Tupac: Resurrection–like voice-over about the trek from “Marcy to Madison Square,” we still leave feeling like we don’t know Jay.
Or maybe we do. The film has a feel similar to his songs—airtight, forthright, never spat till they’re set. His last batch imagined this sort of Garden extravaganza (though not their own hijacked mash-up with Beatles sitars). So the documented celebration is merely the muscular fulfillment of Black Album‘s prophecies. Hey, why conjure your own funeral like B.I.G. when you can craft an A-list send-off to the corner suite? (At press time, Jay seems a lock for Def Jam president.) Carter’s onstage presence has never matched the flooring virtuosity of his flow. But the 34-year-old has learned much since that 2001 MTV Unplugged taping when the charisma of his Che shirt almost swallowed him up. This time he briefly sports a B.I.G. tee under a jacket, just one of many costume changes. Plain sidekicks Memphis Bleek and Beanie Sigel are careful not to challenge his primacy (just watch when Philadelphia’s incendiary Freeway hits the stage and nearly boosts the whole shebang). That Fade coincides with Carter’s shift from hot rapper to haute label mogul is no accident. Like he told us in “What More Can I Say,” he’s got “a CEO’s mind.” He may have 99 problems, but a glitch ain’t one.