Published Sep 26, 2014It's been 20 years since Nas' seminal debut Illmatic was released, and there has been no shortage of the celebration of this fact throughout this year. Alongside a brand new reissue of the album itself, Time Is Illmatic, directed by former graffiti writer One9 and written by former The Source editor Erik Parker, is making the rounds after debuting earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival.
While we are treated to plenty of Nas' hoarsely delivered vocals from indelible tracks such as "The World Is Yours," "One Love" and "NY State of Mind," Time Is Illmatic is overall a sobering and poignant affair. Though Nas has had an enduring, influential and sometimes controversial career, Time is Illmatic focuses squarely on the context of the events that lead to the creation of Nas' landmark debut album.
In doing so, the film's first half hovers longingly on Nas' family background, tracing his father Olu Dara's origins in Natchez, Mississippi and subsequent northward migration where he meets Nas' mother, Ann Jones.
Being reared in a house full of books and the intermittent presence of his father due to the touring demands of his jazz and blues career, the clear motivation for Nas' creative instincts at home are situated against the unforgiving socio-economic realities of living in Queensbridge, the largest housing projects in the United States in the aftermath of white flight.
Nas' mother Jones, who died in 2002, is afforded an extended tribute for her influence on the MC. This is underlined by the absence of Nas' father in the wake of his parent's breakup, and the sudden disappearance of another peer male figure in his friend Ill Will, who was shot after a neighbourhood dispute. These traumatic events are positioned as the roots of Nas' fiery introspection.
Along with indictments of housing policy, the education system and the debilitating rise of crack, hip-hop music — and by proxy Nas' career — is presented as an escapist path to creative expression and possibly economic freedom.
Once he links with producer Large Professor, MC Serch and record exec Faith Newman, Nas' career takes off, and we're treated to some insight into the making of Illmatic, through the eyes of some of the album's producers. It's at this point you might expect artists such as Alicia Keys, Busta Rhymes and Pharrell Williams, who are all on hand in the film's opening reel, to return, but they never do.
While the film has some choice footage, including a clearly geeked Nas kicking his groundbreaking verse on Main Source's "Live At the Barbeque," probably for the first time on stage, the film could have also incorporated a wider lens from critics who could contextualize just how important and groundbreaking the record was.
Sure, we get appearances from Cornel West lauding the album's influence and Henry Louis Gates bestowing Harvard scholarships in Nas' name to underline its singularity, but they were a generation ahead of the critics that first recognized the album's greatness. Curiously, the voice of Hot 97 DJ Miss Info, then known as Shortie, who wrote the now-famous five mic review for The Source magazine, is heard, but she is not seen.
Instead, the film adheres to a focus of Nas' immediate circle, yet it would be inaccurate to say some of the film's best moments aren't associated with the reflections of his brother Jabari (aka Jungle) and Nas' father Olu Dara. It's all crystallized in a scene in which Jabari breaks down what has happened to many of the people photographed on a park bench for the Illmatic cover shoot. It's a jarring moment, meant to drive home Nas' singularity and the burden of his representation.
It's a responsibility he seems to welcome. Though a measured and deliberate presence throughout much of the film, Nas is animated, friendly and humble on a return to the Queensbridge projects. On learning that the middle name of a boy who approaches him while the cameras roll is Nasir, his face lights up. It's not confirmed if the boy's name is in any way related to Nas' own sonic legacy in Queensbridge, but the filmmaker's inclusion of the scene leaves you in no doubt of the generational impact and revered status they attribute to their subject.