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Jay Z: Fade to Black

Jay-Z's Premature Swan Song Ignites Garden

Jay-Z has never been one to shy away from self-promotion.

A tall, broad-shouldered hip-hop icon with brooding eyes, puffy lips and an icy scowl that has retained its menacing edge even as he has skyrocketed to the top of his profession, the Brooklyn-born MC has built his empire on the strength of his boastful, self-aggrandizing rhymes, his professed love for "Cash, Money, Hoes" and all the trappings of his regal lifestyle bordering on cliche. His enduring success is more a tribute to his engaging beats and verbal acrobatics than to the novelty of his approach in an industry already overflowing with brash braggarts and hollow swagger.

Fittingly, Fade to Black is a long, self-indulgent chronicle of his first farewell concert, a rousing love fest held at New York's Madison Square Garden last November. With a sold-out crowd singing along verse-for-verse to hits like "Hard Knock Life," "Dead Presidents" and the irrepressible "Crazy in Love," Z delivers a spirited, athletic performance, whipping the throng into a frenzy simply by admonishing them to bounce in time to his slamming beats. The result -- 10,000 screaming fans simultaneously busting 10,000 different moves -- is perhaps the film's grandest, most jubilant spectacle.

And what would a hip-hop send-off be without enough supplemental star power to illuminate a third-world nation? Naturally, Z gets a little help from his friends, thanks to sizzling cameos by, among others, Mary J. Blige, a scantily clad Lil' Kim, Ghostface Killah and the beautiful Beyonce Knowles. Yet fans will undoubtedly scrutinize the appearance of R. Kelly more than any other, as it was Kelly who co-headlined Z's celebrated return to the Garden stage last Saturday. The pairing dissolved swiftly and acrimoniously when a member of Jay-Z's entourage allegedly doused the soulful crooner with pepper spray; Kelly has since filed suit for $75 million, claiming that his erstwhile business partner's "spite and jealousy" prompted him to use violence to force the cancellation of their 40-city Best of Both Worlds tour. Hence, the birth of the industry's first hip-hop/R&B rivalry.

Beyond traditional concert footage, which provides the film's most compelling moments, Fade to Black offers glimpses of Z's tense, preshow trance ("I go through my Rain Man, I can't explain it," he says) and in-studio clips from the recording of 2003's Black Album, another supposed swan song. Members of his overpopulated entourage wage video-game wars as the quietly intense mogul shows off his effortless mastery of the craft. ("Watch this," famed producer Rick Rubin gushes to visiting Beastie Boy Mike D. "He doesn't write anything down. I've never seen anything like it.")

If fans leave the theater regarding Jay-Z as something of an enigma, that's because he plays it so close to the vest when he's not performing to large crowds. He's not terribly articulate about his music behind closed doors, nor does he divulge many details about his carefully guarded personal life. Instead, Fade to Black lets his high-energy stage show do the talking, and it speaks volumes.

Stars: 3.5 out of 5