No modern American music genre reflects its environment better than hip hop; unsurprisingly, documentaries about its history have proliferated over the years. In some cases, a well-honed treatment of the genre actually has the ability to open up the insulated community to a broader range of listeners, like Ice-T's "Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap," which magnifies the creative process behind various hip hop stars. But others merely stick to their base with less thrilling results for anyone other than existing fans. It's this category where "Nas: Time Is Illmatic," a slim overview of the conditions behind the recording of rapper Nas' seminal debut album "Illmatic" on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, neatly fits in.
The debut feature of multimedia artist One9 does justice to the record's significance for the hordes of fans that have consumed it over the course of a generation. But by almost entirely focusing on the album's conception, it offers only a sliver of appreciation for Nas' career or the broader climate under which it came together. Like a gesture from the rapper acknowledging his crowd, "Time Is Illmatic" is competent bait for Nas fans that leaves the door open just wide enough for newcomers to appreciate the fuss from afar.
Clocking in at a concise 74 minutes, One9's treatment of the record offers little in the way of exclusive looks at recording sessions or other minutiae associated with the rapper's creative process. Instead, it functions like a slim prologue to the album's existence, fleshing out Nas' childhood in the Queensbridge projects, coping with his parents' separation and the rising epidemic of crime around him. Mainly relying on bountiful talking heads ranging from colleagues like Q-Tip to Nas' elementary school teacher and his father, the jazz musician Olu Dara, "Time Is Illmatic" capably lays out the harsh terms of the setting and the inspirational value of Nas' ensuing success. These later scenes are worshipful of their subject to a largely unsubstantiated degree; the movie lacks much detail with regard to Nas' personality, yielding a strangely professional overview in spite of the album's personal connotations.
But it's impossible not to get swept up in the energy of the era, when disses from various hip hop groups gave rises to cross-borough tensions and a 17-year-old Nas wowed crowds overnight with his stunningly inventive lyrics. Fueled by ample footage of live performances and recollections from Nas in the studio, "Time Is Illmatic" offers a compelling outline of his abrupt rise that swaps analysis for unbridled celebration. There are no critical discussions of the challenges involved in navigating the commercial industry, and Nas' fame only holds appeal with regard to the altruistic acts that came out of it. Yet the narrative of "Time Is Illmatic" is essentially foolproof: It aims small and never veers off-task. Whether or not you dig the album, the documentary offers a number of reasons to appreciate its ongoing legacy, with sufficient production values to hold the tribute together.
One9 broadens his portrait somewhat with genial footage of Nas returning to the projects where he grew up and giving advice to some neighborhood kids. For the most part, however, the movie provides a straightforward rundown of the ingredients fueling his fame at the time of its inception. The directly hardly bothers to sketch out the broader landscape of the music business in the early nineties, nor does he deal at all with the rapper's latest output. There's no doubting that "Time Is Illmatic" harbors a keen marketing agenda, but it's never gratuitous.
While obviously reverential toward its subject, "Time Is Illmatic" effectively places Nas' talent in a sentimental context—in one case, exploring the conditions under which he wrote "One Love" as a tribute to his less fortunate colleagues. It's here that the rapper is seen observing an old photo of his crew from the neighborhood, most of whom have wound up behind bars or otherwise held back in life. "I represent my friends who didn't make it here with me," he says, a statement that takes on poignant ramifications in one of the few present-day moments in the film, when the rapper establishes a scholarship at Harvard in his name.
Still, "Time Is Illmatic" contains only fleeting samples of the tracks from the album, and only truly succeeds when considered alongside its contents. For that reason alone, the documentary's premiere as the opening night entry of the Tribeca Film Festival held appeal more because of the rapper's post-screening performance of "Illmatic" from start to finish than due to anything included in the movie alone. (He continues to tour with the film for its release.) With the foundation of the album's value in play, Nas' performance brought its history to life.
At one point during the show, the rapper's brother Jungle—who's prominently featured in the documentary, memorably recalls a shooting incident in their youth—joined Nas onstage, giddily dancing around with a bottle of Hennessy in hand, while the Nas' two nephews hovered nearby. Their collective presence was simultaneously empowered by the documentary's story and evidence of its shortcomings. At one point in the movie, Nas refers to his art as "ideas in rap version." There's no question that "Time Is Ilmmatic" shows the root of those ideas, but the music speaks for itself.
A version of this review ran during the Tribeca Film Festival. "Time is Illmatic" opens in select theaters today and on nationwide VOD and iTunes/digital platforms on October 3.