Nas: Time is Illmatic – Film Review

This exemplary documentary shows we are only just beginning to understand what "Illmatic' means

There are several ways to tell the story of a classic album, but for their take on Nas’ ‘Illmatic’, first-time filmmaker One9 and his writing collaborator, former Vibe magazine staffer Erik Parker, have opted for perhaps the most difficult. They’ve chosen to see the New York rapper’s 20-year-old debut as not just the jumping-off point for one of hip-hop’s most consistently successful careers, but as the culmination of Nasir Jones’ life.

Time Is Illmatic is an uncommonly rich and rewarding biography of an artist whose work merits such painstaking and extensive illumination. The first half of this superb film digs deep into the back-story, not just explaining 41-year-old Nas’ role in 1990s NYC rap, but using archive material from the 1930s to uncover the history of the Queensbridge housing project he grew up in.

Determined to locate Nas’ art in its deepest, broadest contexts, One9 and Parker track all the way back to Natchez, Mississippi, where Nas’ father, jazz trumpeter Olu Dara, was born. The link to the lineage of blues and jazz was there all along, but Nas himself didn’t make it explicit until he recorded ‘Bridging The Gap’ with his father in 2004. Placing Illmatic in that continuum of African-American music is absolutely correct, yet unprecedented in even the extensive bibliography the album has generated.

That said, there are two problems with the film. The first is the decision to illustrate key ‘Illmatic’ cuts with footage from Nas performing at the Rock The Bells touring festival in Los Angeles. The sound mix is muddy, with the verses bellowed rather than intoned: anyone unfamiliar with the record would be unlikely to grasp its excellence from these scrappy excerpts. The second is that, by trying to cram such a wide-ranging narrative into far too small a space (the running time is an inexplicably scant 73 minutes: it could have been twice as long and still felt short), there isn’t room to examine the album with anything like the precision that is brought to bear on Nas’ work as a whole. When it is eventually studied, it feels almost like an afterthought, even though every key person involved in its creation (including DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor, Q-Tip, manager-cum-executive-producer MC Serch and even Columbia’s driven A&R, Faith Newman) is given the chance to talk.

Despite these shortcomings, this is an exemplary film, shedding new light on the album and its maker in practically every frame. Parker and One9 deserve huge credit for treating their subject with suitable, but unusual, respect and reverence. In the process they show that, 20 years on, we are only now beginning to understand quite what ‘Illmatic’ means.

Details

Director: One9
Release date: 24 Oct, 2014