Nas: Time Is Illmatic (Film) [Review]
Queensbridge, NY – Nas‘s Illmatic remains, twenty years after it’s release in 1994, one of the most intellectual records in the history of mainstream music. Hip-hop has had the toughest time out of all genres of music to be accepted as a legitimate art form. Illmatic was instrumental in bringing dignity to this gritty diamond in the rough genre.
In the recently release film Time Is Illmatic – a documentary on the classic album, Erykah Badu describes Illmatic as her “weapon” growing up in Texas. It arrived at a time when the future for most of black America was bleak. Like a struck match, Illmatic reignited hope to a mounting debris of social despair. It was about the neighborhood, and the block, and the around the corner. It was fiercely localized and grounded. The perspective out of a Queens neighborhood looking out onto the world, suddenly was made to matter.
Fans could have been apprehensive about a documentary that might wish to cash in on the success of an album 20 years later, thereby defeating it’s initial message of keeping it real while telling the stories of the marginalized. Luckily, Time is Illmatic steers clear of that mistake. It seeks to project understanding of the atmosphere that precipitated a project such as Illmatic. The film dissects the universality and relatability of Illmatic. Time is Illmatic is not the egotistical concert-tour-accompanying project that one would expect from marketing-driven rappers of today.
The documentary tells the story of Nas’ humble origins. We see rustic photographs of his childhood and in the periphery are striking images of a community that later succumbed to the strains of living in the projects and hurdles that go along with drug trafficking. The documentary outlines the disadvantages experienced by residents of the Queens projects that were systematically designed to keep the people down. The lack of prospects were worrying and resulted in an entire generation of disillusioned youth who had no place else to go but in to the tempting arms of crime. Through this space came the stories that constituted Illmatic. Director One9 builds this atmosphere step by step into a fleshed out tapestry of anecdotes, interviews, old photographs, and rare video footage.
The film has a home like feel to it. You feel invited into the home of Nas’ mother and his father. Shots of Nas walking around the projects are genuine. We see Nas’ handsome father telling the boys to read Ralph Emerson and teaching them to play the trumpet. We see Nas’ resilient mother run the household on her own and cook the best meals on the block. One9 creates a wonderful sense of home. He later shows how external stimuli easily dismantle the family unit and send members flying like aimless shards into a world that offers no economic and social support.
We see the legacy of music in Nas’ blood through his musician father, Olu Dara, whose time in the navy gave Nas and his brother Jamari (Jungle) a broad sense of the world and dreams of endless possibilities. We see how the two young boys are given a loving childhood home and yet how at some point, the ways of the streets encroach on their bright futures with time. When Nas’ childhood best friend Ill Will was shot it rouses a creative storm in him that eventually manifests itself into Illmatic. In this hood the economic odds are so much against you, that no matter how well you rear your children, they end up having the same fate – prison or death. Or if they were lucky – overwork and poverty.
Illmatic shed light on this hopelessness with fierce poetry, and provocative words that gave voice to the anger that flowed alongside the blood of the community. Illmatic’s lyrical finesse was unprecedented and so it shook the world up into listening with the hair standing on the back of its neck.
There is a scene in the documentary where Nas is a panelist at a seminar at Harvard. The union of those two supposedly antagonistic worlds in itself is a perfect metaphor for Illmatic in action. Nas brought hip-hop to Harvard with Illmatic. With this record he spearheaded the conscious hip-hop movement and brought it to the mainstream.
Jungle, Nas’ brother, is the closest point of reference to Nas. He describes atmosphere and attitudes that no one else can. His thug speak is honest and endearing. When he describes getting shot in the thigh and the shoulder in the projects, his tone is conversational. He lacks shock and grief. Mid-recanting he stops and asks his homie for a cigarette. Jungle’s unpretentiousness brings warmth and authenticity to the documentary. The same can be said for the quality of all the interviews that One9 performs. Alicia Keys, Swizz Beats, Q-Tip are stripped of their stardom and presented in the context of their relationship to Illmatic as an inspiration source. Producers reminisce about ushering in a new and exciting era of hip-hop with Nas. Footage of rap performances by Nas, Roxanne Shante send thrill chills down your spine.
One9 focuses on the making of the four most prominent songs on the album as there isn’t enough time to go in depth with every song. The process behind each song is inspiring for fellow artists to watch. The quality of music in the documentary is A+. The 90s come to life with smooth, still-young, hip-hop; a genre in the midst of finding its identity through pushing its boundaries. What must it have felt like to live in Queens amidst fear of violence, but then finding reprieve in music that could lift your soul instantaneously? That is the question the documentary so brilliantly answers.
One9 does not focus on the monetary success of Illmatic, which is what keeps the film so true to the album’s spirit. The goal it seems, with Illmatic, was never to make billions of dollars. The primary goal was to tell the stories of the voiceless who needed help. The documentary similarly focuses on the stories rather than the success and the bling. Many years later we find much of the black American population in America dealing with the same economic disadvantages as the ones Nas talked about 20 years ago. It unfortunately is just as relevant today as it was back then. Should that be interpreted as a genius feat in timeless artistic relevance or as the prolonged failure of American social structures?
For fans of Nas, Illmatic and hip-hop in general, Time is Illmatic is a rich and thought provoking treat. It tracks the construction of the most truthful works of art of all time. It allows the delicious processes of creativity and social change to be relived. Not just an homage to a great album, One9’s documentary is an important commentary on black American sociology.
Special thanks to Vancouver International Film Festival for choosing to partner with HipHopCanada on the screening of Time Is Illmatic in Vancouver.
Written by Prachi Kamble for HipHopCanada