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Rapper Jay-Z is far from shy and retiring in 'Fade to Black'

Jay-Z might be the greatest lyricist in hip-hop, but to watch him in the enlightening new concert documentary ''Fade to Black," you'd never know he's a star. His face has about two expressions (rapping and not rapping). His long body does not dance. In certain T-shirts, his torso goes on forever, and nothing ever seems to get to him, not the sight of his gal-pal Beyonce, not the knowledge that the Madison Square Garden show the movie captures is supposed to be his last.

''Dirt off Your Shoulder" is not a just a song about transcendence for him. It's a state of mind. Never during his extremely sold-out performance does he even break a sweat.

Jay-Z is the coolest man in pop music and, lately, the classiest dude in rap. One of the lighter songs on ''The Black Album," which he swore would be his last record (he lied), dares his fans and peers to consider a makeover. ''Y'all . . . acting way too tough," he says. ''Throw on a suit and get it tapered up." This is the advice of a man about to leave the streets and head to the boardroom.

''Fade to Black" chronicles the life and times of Shawn Carter (the rapper's birth name) -- but only during the months before his likely retreat to a corner office at Def Jam records, and while he recorded ''The Black Album," his cleverest, most vividly produced work. The movie is also expansive enough to allow for rumination. A classic scene between Jay-Z and friends ends with a protege confessing he feels pressure to rap about guns when he hasn't shot anybody; that's a conversation worthy of its own film.

Directed by Patrick Paulson and Michael John Warren, the movie has the good sense to stay focused on the music. Its assembly is shoddy -- leaps between the concert and the studio break the flow -- and it contains the usual concert-movie hype. The backstage celebrity testimonials are so thick you could chip a tooth on them; be warned that no matter how much you love him, Usher, Common, and Ghostface Killah love Jay-Z even more.

The film elects a storytelling manner that's scarily similar to the beginning of a lot of hip-hop thrillers. While the camera glides over New York City, Jay-Z narrates his life as though he's already dead. But the movie wisely spares us a lot of life-story dramatics, takes us right behind the music, and lodges us at the Garden show.

As it turns out, the concert is only intermittently electrifying. This isn't totally the movie's fault. For one thing, the crowd flooded the arena that night like sad people attending a co-worker's very loud, very star-studded retirement party. (Unidentified smoke rises from the masses like geyser steam.) As far as they knew, this was to be their last live encounter with Jay-Z. Of course, ''Fade to Black" is being released a week after his post-retirement tour with R. Kelly imploded, incidentally, at the Garden. Now the show in the movie feels like just another concert.

It has its moments, though. The one near the end where R. Kelly bounds onstage suddenly feels surreal. Every song Jay-Z does while backed by the live band, led by drummer Ahmir Thompson, is opened up and transformed. ''H to the Izzo," for instance, becomes something that wouldn't sound out of place on a Jackson Five record. And when Memphis Bleek joins him onstage, Jay-Z becomes a dazzling entertainer, playing with the speed and pitch of his rhymes.

There are other cameos, including one by the typically showstopping Mary J. Blige and another with Beyonce, who's sort of the halftime act, doing her finest Ikette impersonation yet and reminding us that she and her boyfriend have an urgent lack of public chemistry.

The revelation in ''Fade to Black" is the recording of ''The Black Album," none of whose songs appear in the show. The movie follows Jay-Z through an Oz-like journey from one important producer to the next -- the Neptunes, Timbaland, Rick Rubin, Kanye West. We see how a lot of the record's best songs were picked and are shown that Jay-Z is a kind of savant (he doesn't commit any lyrics to paper).

In Timbaland's case, we see that the process is like shopping. His beats are expensive, and Jay-Z is leaving with only one. The best moment in the movie comes when he hears for the first time the mysterious, hard-thumping, synthed-up beat that eventually would become ''Dirt off Your Shoulder." He does a little dance. (Timbaland, who's equally smitten, does a big, jiggly one.) Jay-Z even makes a face. He can't believe what he hears. For a minute, he's not a mogul or an icon. He's a kid in an ear-candy store. Why would he ever give that up?

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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