Before Every Lame Artist Called Their Album "A Movie," There was 'Fade to Black'

JAY-Z's retirement documentary is a fascinating time capsule and an enduring piece of art that still feels relevant today.
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JAY-Z FADE TO BLACK DOCUMENTARY

As footage of JAY-Z extemporaneously mumbling the lyrics to “What More Can I Say” plays silently beneath his voiceover, the rapper attempts to contextualize this moment for the viewer:

"I can’t explain it to y’all, man. It comes out the air for me, I start mumbling. They say you put the right artist with the right track in the studio, leave the door cracked, and let God in."

This is just one of the many grandiose statements that JAY-Z makes in Fade to Black that only JAY-Z can really get away with making. Rewatching this clip moments ago, I tried to imagine how preposterous it would sound if a rapper were to say this during a live-streamed studio session in 2017. I couldn’t help but laugh at the mental image of a random SoundCloud rapper citing divine intervention before entering the recording booth to experiment awkwardly with ad libs while his/her homies idle around impatiently, staring emotionless at their phone screens.  

Of course, JAY-Z isn’t a SoundCloud rapper, his “homies” in the film were star collaborators like Kanye West and Timbaland, and the studio sessions depicted in Fade to Black were treated as historic occasions, rather than as disposable content for artists’ Snapchats. Aside from what I’m sure was a very thorough editing process that left all the uninteresting moments on the cutting room floor, part of what makes the film so enthralling is the sense of urgency with which everyone in it appears to be working.

Looking back on it, it seems outright naive that any of us were genuinely convinced that JAY-Z was planning to retire from music indefinitely, but it’s almost comforting to realize that all of his collaborators were operating under the same impression. At one point in the film, Pharrell looks directly into the camera and delivers a monologue about how important it is for him to have his work featured on this album:

"There’s no way in the world I’m not getting my movie shit off on the last album. The last album?! I never got a chance to do ‘Dead Presidents’ or ‘The World Is Yours,’ so I gotta get my story shit on!"

In this sense, Fade to Black is a rare glimpse at a group of artists working to the highest extent of their creative abilities, motivated only by the desire to be part of a timeless piece of art. This palpable energy comes across on-screen, as you watch Timbaland and JAY-Z lightheartedly push each other during their joint studio session. “You confused?!” Timbaland playfully asks Jay after playing him a slightly untraditional beat. Moments later, Hov mocks Timbaland by saying, “You ain’t got no bounce, n----.“ All of this creative sparring eventually culminates in the eureka moment when Timbaland plays the beat for “Dirt Off Your Shoulders.” Upon hearing it for the first time, JAY-Z immediately raises out of his seat, as if the chair itself was somehow encumbering his overflowing inspiration. It’s an amazing moment to see captured on film.

Watching this segment, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for this bygone era. In a time when artists and producers borderline brag about creating collaborative projects without ever having set foot in the same room as one another, it’s hard not to wonder whether magical moments like this are sometimes lost in the process.

It’s a feeling I’m stuck with also as I watch the scene that depicts JAY-Z working with Rick Rubin on “99 Problems.” As JAY-Z is getting a haircut in the room adjacent to the studio, Rubin excitedly walks in to suggest an idea: “I’m thinking maybe we start acapella with, 'If you havin’ girl problems, I feel bad for you son. I got 99 problems, but a bitch ain’t one. Hit me.' Right into the first verse.” JAY-Z gets it immediately. “So, ‘I got the rap patrol'—yeah, that’s money!” he replies. It’s a scene that highlights the important distinction between producer and beatmaker. Given the opportunity to contribute as equals, producers can enhance a song from top to bottom—the a capella introduction to “99 Problems” is an undeniably remarkable flourish that triumphantly announces the song’s arrival—but as beatmakers are increasingly marginalized by the realities of an unfair industry, it seems like we’re seeing increasingly fewer of these types of collaborations.

Throughout the film, there are several other moments that showcase producers getting the space to work as artists in their own right and each one of them is equally fascinating. There’s the moment when Pharrell is on the phone with JAY-Z, trying to convince him to come to the studio to hear the instrumental that would later become “Allure,” and he pitches the beat to him bundled with an entire concept: “Your career, right now, this is the end of Carlito’s Way. You’re just trying to get one more last job in before you get out. I’m trying to tell you that I have the beat that describes that moment.” Despite sarcastically deadpanning “That’s the speech?!” when Pharrell later recapitulates the concept after he arrives, it’s clear that JAY-Z likes the concept, as he ultimately uses it as inspiration for his lyrics.

Along the same lines, the studio session with Kanye is particularly fascinating because it appears to foreshadow much of what we understand about Kanye today. In 2003, when Hov was recording The Black Album, Kanye was not yet an accomplished rapper. Yet, while all the other producers brought in seemed grateful just for the opportunity to play JAY-Z beats, it’s clear that the only thing on Kanye’s mind was his own artistry. For example, rather than letting JAY-Z hear the beat that would eventually become “Lucifer,” Kanye turns it down and starts rapping over it, saying, "This joint right here, if you don’t take it, this is the verse I’m going to do on it.”

I doubt whether JAY-Z would let just anyone get away with this behavior, but it’s made clear in the film that he has a certain amount of respect for Kanye that he doesn’t have for just anyone. It’s worth noting that JAY-Z would later end up taking the iconic lyric “I’m from the murder capital, where they murder for capital” from Kanye’s rendition and using it in the final song. Perhaps, I’m reading a bit too much into it, but watching this scene, it almost feels like watching the seeds of a collaborative process planted that would later bear fruit in the form of Watch the Throne.

I hate to admit it, but on some level, the legacy of The Black Album was tainted after JAY-Z came out of retirement. It’s one of my favorite albums nonetheless, but lyrics like “Maybe you’ll love me when I fade to black” seem almost tacky when you consider that JAY-Z barely retired long enough to let himself fade to dark gray.

Yet, while lyrics about him fading to black seem gimmicky, the movie Fade to Black feels anything but that. It’s both a time capsule and an enduring piece of art that still feels relevant today. Its legacy may not be all positive—it might single-handedly be responsible for the hundreds of rappers who have ill-advisedly attempted to emulate JAY-Z’s (lack of a) writing process—but allow this article to be the first to induct this documentary into the hall of fame of “Things That Allow You to Genuinely Feel Like a Fly on a Very Dope Wall.”

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