Every form of art has a work that transcends its genre and forces listeners/viewers/participants to look at art and the world from a different perspective; The Mona Lisa for painting, “Watchmen” for comics, “Metropolis” for film, etc. Nasir “Nas” Jones did just that for the still budding form of hip-hop and music at large with the release of his seminal album “Illmatic” in 1994.
Hailed as a New York visionary who wore his love for Queensbridge on his sleeve while crafting poetry out of stories from the block, the compelling stories, immersive production, and raw MC-ing skill displayed on “Illmatic” brought the experience of Black America, particularly Black American men, to public attention and rocked hip-hop to its foundations in ways that can still be seen and heard today.
And now this groundbreaking LP has a shiny new documentary to go along with it for its 20th anniversary. Directed by former graffiti artist One9 in his directorial debut, “Time Is Illmatic” is a journey through the life of the man who bore the soul of New York for all to see 20 years ago, and it’s a comprehensive and entertaining trip through days of hip-hop’s past.
Much like the similarly structured “Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest” from 2011, “Time Is Illmatic” chronicles the life and work of Nas, but in this case, One9 and writer Erik Parker decide to narrow their focus exclusively toward the album that made their subject a superstar. Everyone from Nas’ brother Jabari, aka “Jungle”, to his jazz musician father Olu Dara to his primary school teacher to Nas himself is tapped to recount his humble beginnings. These humble origins make up about the first half of the film, but the air of humbleness pervades the rest of the production as Nas recalls those who weren’t as lucky as he to survive the Queensbridge experience.
It’s an hour and fourteen minutes of praise from family and friends including Busta Rhymes, Alicia Keys, Q-Tip, and others about Nas’ record and life, but it’s well deserved and not as nepotistic as that might sound. A large section of the film is dedicated to the friends that inspired him and many of whom whose stories provided fodder for “Illmatic’s” canon. While he may be a living legend with money and endorsements with Hennessy, Nas takes us through his old Queensbridge stomping grounds. As he stops to speak encouraging words to a young boy, the humble energy of this larger than life figure radiates off of the screen.
Like I expect from any good documentary, it’s entertaining even if you don’t know “NY State of Mind” from “One Love”. The story of drug-riddled 1990s New York and young Black life is tragically common and the triumph of “Illmatic” resonate to a strong degree. It’s also a well-edited and shot version of entertaining, with concert footage old and new weaved in between old photos and testimonials. One9’s experience as a graffiti artist grants him a unique eye for composition that’s perfect for Nas’ story. I am surprised at the minimal political involvement aside from Cornell West and Henry Louis Gates, but the more contemplative and intimate approach One9 and Parker choose serves them better in the end.
Even if you have no vested interest in hip-hop, “Time is Illmatic” is informative and compelling enough on its own merits as a tale of struggle and success to be worth a recommendation, though because it consolidates a lot of juicy information into its 74 minute runtime, it’s sure to grab hold of a new fan base. With “Illmatic”, Nas managed to make the poignancy of life in the ghettos of America palpable, and it’s remarkable that One9 and Parker managed to catch that feeling on film.
Hip-hop is quickly being accepted as art, and I wouldn’t be surprised if more documentaries of this ilk get made as more and more MCs hit yearly milestones. Besides, many of the great pieces, music or otherwise, from the hip-hop world all tend to affirm one fact: The World Is Yours.
“Nas: Time Is Illmatic” will become available on demand, iTunes, and other VOD providers starting Friday, October 3, and the film will first release theatrically in New York and Los Angeles starting on October 1, distributed by Tribeca Film.