In 1994, rapper, Nas (short for Nasir Jones), released Illmatic, an album that would come to be widely known as his best album to date and one that changed the history of hip-hop. With a title like Time Is Illmatic, one would assume that this documentary focuses largely on the album and the music, or even Nas himself. Unlike many documentaries of the same variety, this does not delve too deep into the mind of Nas or even into the music. Time Is Illmatic instead tells the story of hip-hop and the evolution of rap in Queensbridge through Nas’s lens as he and his family survive Queens in the early 90s.
At just under an hour and fifteen minutes, Time Is Illmatic manages to mix the two elements expertly. It’s almost as if there are two narratives going on; one, the story of early 90s Queensbridge and how plummeting socioeconomic conditions befalling black urban populations spurred the rap movement, and two, the evolution and development of Nas as a poet and artist. The two stories are distinct but not separate, meeting in a cathartic third act in which both narratives collide, resulting in the fabled album for which the film is named. To accomplish that in an informative, relevant and satisfying manner in under 75 minutes is a major accomplishment, especially in the world of documentaries.
The beginning of the film focuses largely on Nas’ father and his life as a traveling musician. The director, One9, takes his time painting a picture of Nas’s family life early on, one that was rich with knowledge and information passed down by his father. So much of the beginning is dominated by Nas’ father and his story that one tends to forget what the subject of the film is exactly, which isn’t really a bad thing. Nas’ father is an articulate interview and does well to shed light on the exposure to the art and literature Nas had at a young age and how that influenced Nas’ own art later on. It’s fascinating from a parenting perspective as well as an artistic one, as his father describes the exact circumstances that Nas underwent in order to realize his ability. The way his father spoke of intentionally exposing him to great works of literature and filling their house with books and his own stories as a world traveling jazz musician lends itself the notion of premeditation–that Nas’ father knew he would be a genius and he was just setting the table for him.
After setting the stage with Nas’ family life, the film delves into Nas’ own personal development from as an adolescent, interviewing him as well as his brother. Nas’ demeanor in his interviews is that of a grateful and humbled superstar, one who realizes his roots and the people who inspired him to get to where he is. He understands that this documentary, his documentary, could’ve been about him, but rather he uses it as a stage to regail and somewhat romanticize his hometown’s story and the struggles he faced getting out.
This documentary gives depth and insight into the mind of a genius trapped in a crumbling environment. It is a story of family and death, of art and inspiration. It is a story of Queensbridge, a story Nas happens to be a part of. The historical references are sprinkles on the sundae, most notably when Nas retells a feud between his group and Bronx based rappers. It’s all very fascinating from a historical point of view which compliments nicely to the personal element of Nas’ history. Regardless of if you’re a fan of his or not, this film is definitely worth the watch.
Time Is Illmatic
Currently in theaters.
Films are rated on a scale of 5 stars (must-see), 4 stars (exceptional), 3 stars (solid), 2 stars (average) and 1 star (unworthy).