The hip-hop superstar Jay-Z is tall and strapping, with pillowy lips that part with imperious cool, yet he has a lightness that belies his powerful presence. He spews rhymes so fast it’s as if he were daring you to follow him. The words tumble out and skitter by in a dense but orderly rush — quicker than Eminem’s, more fevered than a meth-stoked auctioneer’s. The speed, and potency, of his raps is astounding, yet what made my jaw drop as I watched Fade to Black, a Jay-Z concert film shot on Nov. 25, 2003, was the realization that every person standing in the sold-out audience at Madison Square Garden — boy, girl, black, white, in effect the whole candy-striped nation — knew every verse, every word, to every number. In Fade to Black, the entire throng chants in unison to some of the most elaborate thickets of lyrics ever devised. You thought there was Red State America and Blue State America? Welcome to Jay-Z America. It’s not your father’s crossover rap show.
I invoke the audience only because it’s just as integral to this concert as it would have been to a 1979 Springsteen show. Everyone in rock has played at the Garden, but Fade to Black, which documents the celebration of Jay-Z’s retirement from recording, was breakthrough terrain for a solo hip-hop show — even if the solo dimension is a bit of a conceit. We see performers from Foxy Brown to Usher to Ghostface Killah to the singe-your-eyeballs- sexy Beyoncé, who proves how much more glorious bump-and-grind soul dancing is when it isn’t driven by lip-synched Barbies.
Jay-Z raps over bassy melodic grooves that have the force of funk thunderballs. Some of the numbers in Fade to Black are playful, like the 2001 hit ”Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” but mostly they’re driven by an ominoso thrust. That’s what the audience loves: his elegant yet relentless post-gangsta assertion. In one of several non-concert interludes set at recording studios, we see Jay-Z create a number of his raps, which he spins off the edge of his brain, never writing anything down. The man has the right to retire, but what will he do with all the words in his head?