“Life’s a bitch and then you die,” rapper Nasir Jones spit on Illmatic, his groundbreaking 1994 debut album. A grim, cynical statement, Nas was simply following the tradition of hip-hop—reflecting your environment back to the audience. As Chuck D of Public Enemy once said, rap music was the “CNN for black people.” And so with Illmatic, Nas’ now-landmark record, the rapper changed the game, broadcasting his pains, frustrations, ugly truths and hardships to a nation of listeners through a filter of lyrically dense, angry, blunt rhymes and jazz-inflected boom-bap beats. “It was real. He spoke the truth,” Alicia Keys says in a new documentary, seemingly still taken aback by Nas’ unflinching approach.
Directed by multimedia artist One9, written by Erik Parker and produced by One9, Parker, and Anthony Saleh, “Nas: Time Is Illmatic” is a look back on the now-cherished, seminal hip-hop record, but also focuses deeply on of the environment that created it. Traveling back, way back in the day, ‘Illmatic’ leaves no bit of history unchecked, looking at Nas’ adolescence (more centered than most), parents (including his influential jazz/blues musician father, Olu Dara), the way he was raised (a strong single mother), his milieu (the rough projects of Queensbridge, Queens, as the New York crack epidemic was about to explode) and the friends and formidable experiences that produced this talented young artist.
Well shot and structured, the doc spends ample time delving into the milestones of the rapper’s life and heritage: his father’s move from Mississippi to Queens, the marriage that eventually fell apart when the strain from the musician father’s constant touring took its toll, dropping out of school in the eighth grade, a tragic shooting of a child hood friend and the young rapper’s drive to make good and get out of the hood. Meanwhile, musical context is delivered: the nascent days of rap and where it was heading, the Queensbridge hip-hop sound (the Juice Crew) and the rap beefs that defined it, meeting Roxanne Shanté for an early support gig, early performances and the like.
But if “Time Is Illmatic” is the deconstruction of environment, the rapper himself and a legendary hip-hop record, enough connective tissue is missing to preclude the doc from becoming the definitive portrait of any of these topics. Ultimately focus is part of the issue at hand. “Time Is Illmatic” is comprehensive, even wisely holistic, but still feels as though something is missing. It’s as if in trying to cover the history, the music, the ecosystem, the upbringing and the man itself, each cancels out the other out, leaving only a surface exploration.
A well-composed and put together individual, Nas is so even-keeled and mature, he’s a tough subject in many ways. There’s no warts-and-all perspective to be had. And not to undermine the insurmountable obstacles Nas faced living in the projects—as the film suggests, just making it out alive or not incarcerated was an achievement in itself, let alone breaking through to create a hip hop masterpiece. But the doc lacks the kind of dramas that make music documentaries so enticing. Dare it to say that Nas is almost boring compared to most rappers. If Jay-Z’s braggadocio makes him the equivalent of a rock star, in comparison, Nas is more akin to a well-respected jazz musician who earns quiet respect for his excellent chops.
“Time Is Illmatic” also lacks the bite and immediacy of the record it hopes to commemorate. It’s neither here nor there, pleasing without ever ingratiating itself, honest without ever being raw. The film is almost too centered, a little grit and roughness around the edges might have shaken it up a bit. While stopping short of hagiography, the celebratory Nas doc is a respectfully told portrait of perseverance over grim socio-economic and cultural conditions, but “Time Is Illmatic” is perhaps a little too respectful.
Often self-serious and even somber, “Time Is Illmatic” isn’t humorless either, thankfully. In particular, the story of The South Bronx (KRS 1 & The Boogie Down Productions) feud against Marley Marl’s Queensbridge-based Juice Crew (and Nas’ “oh shit!” recollections of this beef as a fledgling teenager) is deeply entertaining. But one sometimes wishes the doc was as infectious, natural and loose as these segments. Featuring appearances by seminal hip-hop figures like Busta Rhymes, Alicia Keys, Marley Marl, Roxanne Shanté, DJ Premier, MC Serch, Pete Rock, Large Professor, Q-Tip and L.E.S., all these musicians weigh in on the “genius” of Nas, but a greater musical context is absent. Nas’ great work is explored, but where it fits alongside what was happening in the early 90s of rap is missing. We’re told it’s seminal, but we’re rarely given the context to feel like, “ahh, yes, this is why it matters.”
“Time Is Illmatic” charts the journey to Illmatic, but isn’t as interested in the destination as much as one would think. Missing is its New York context (how it separated from the spirit of the Native Tongues-inspired alternative rap of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Jungle Brothers) and how Illmatic’s dense lyrical prowess impacted hip hop (the album was so influential at the time, lyricism soon took a front seat once again after the album was heralded by The Source with a rare five mic review). Illmatic is a terrifically produced and nuanced record, but most of the music in the film is presented in a live form—distorted vocals over equally distorted beats, killing the nuance of all the music.
One can’t help but compare the hip hop documentary to another recent Tribeca-premiered documentary, “Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest.” That doc effortlessly balanced context, musical legacy, drama, hardship and little human victories in stupendous fashion. It wasn’t afraid to pull-no-punches to get to some deeper emotional truths (Tribe were notoriously unhappy with the doc because it opened up their internal, deeply personal struggles to the world, but in the end it made for an extremely rich and moving portrait of brotherhood).
Solidly built and mostly engaging, “Time Is Illmatic” is—don’t get it twisted—a worthwhile documentary that doesn’t shy away from some serious issues integral to the formation of its central subject, but it doesn’t crackle like it should. If Illmatic was an arresting, landmark and quintessential hip-hop record that changed the game and forced you to sit up straight and pay attention, you sometimes wish the documentary could take you by the scruff of the neck with the same swagger, energy and aplomb. [B-]