Documentary Film Review: "Nas: Time Is Illmatic" (2014)
Director One9's Immersive Look At the Social Conditions Behind Nas's Debut Will Win Over Converts And Be Endlessly Pleasing To His Already Expansive Fanbase
When hip-hop/rap aficionados think hard about the greatest artists and their albums they will likely, without much hesitation point to Tupac, Biggie Smalls, KRS-One, Wu-Tang Clan, DJ Cool Herc, Slick Rick and the Beastie Boys. Oh, and Slim Shady. While there is no denying that these genre heavyweights left a sizable footprint in the rap/hip-hop scene for all time, few artists are as prolific and as continuously relevant as Nas. Even as recently as 2012 when Nas burst out with yet another album titled "Life Is Good" it represented another boundless leap forward for the now middle-aged rapper as it acknowledged his impending mortality and what his mark might represent for future discovers of his soaring command of the medium. Like it or not, Nas makes evident that he is here to stay and that he'll continue to challenge his audience's frame of mind.
As "Time Is Illmatic" reveals to us, Nas grew up in the extremely rough housing project of the turbulent Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City, Queens with his father Olu Dara, a world-traveling touring jazz trumpet player, his brother Jungle and Postal Service mother Fannie Ann Jones. As a kid, his neighbor Willy Graham would spin early records for young Nasir and was credited with being his springboard toward becoming a lyricist and recording artist. Unfortunately, Nas would be the victim of a broken home when his parents divorced when he was 12. This subsequently led to him dropping out in the 8th grade as he began to pursue independent intellectual and creative pursuits through his exposure to the Bible, Five Percent Nation, and the Qur'an. These texts would serve to infuse and influence his raps and give the young artist a sage-like grasp of topics that would normally be seen as out of reach for someone so young.
After spending a great deal of time in the underground scene cutting his teeth and guesting on some of his contemporaries early mix tapes, Nas made a significant splash with his debut "Illmatic" that would really usher in a new early 90's hip-hop golden age. The album, as chronicled by One9 and in interviews in the documentary, strove to combine the perfect balance of hard-hitting rhymes and philosophy mixed with complimentary but rousing production values. As gifted as Nas was as a lyricist, he also had an excellent creative understanding from a sound design standpoint while enlisting established DJ's like DJ Premier to assist him on the production end. "Illmatic" as an album represented a confidence in the then 20 year old Nas that was uncommon for the time. This mold would carry on throughout Nas's output for the next 20 years as his name and image became synonymous with these creative characteristics. On a number of occasions, Nas was pressured by Columbia Records to become more accessible and traditional much like Biggie but he stayed the course and proved himself to be an expert negotiator that wouldn't compromise his sound.
My critiques of the documentary are many sided. For one, it does gloss over a lot of his later output post-Illmatic which for me proved disenchanting. I would have preferred if One9 had contextualized Nas's 1994 debut with those others albums (especially my favorites like 2002's "The Lost Tapes" and 2006's "Hip Hop Is Dead") and made a case for Nas's latter-day creative growth. Instead, the doc spends most of its duration with interviews from Nas, his brother, his parents and several of his mentors. While the interviews were well-arranged and proved effective in making a listener understand the genesis for the album's creation, for rabid fans of Nas it could prove to be much of a letdown. I also found it to be a bit too swiftly paced as if there were plenty of avenues the documentary could have spent a bit more time on. Believe it or not, this is a documentary that I thought could have used additional running time as I definitely felt there was more story to be told. I was very interested in learning about the political backlash of the time under the Giuliani Administration which the film failed to cover. Despite that quibble, the documentary does offer substantial evidence of Illmatic's timelessness and puts it on a cultural pedestal. Twenty years on, it doesn't merely serve as a relic of its time but, most astonishingly, as a wake-up call to Post-Modern America in the wake of Ferguson, Eric Garner and the racially-motivated cop killings that have captured the entire world.
"Time Is Illmatic" is a well-constructed documentary as its tightly edited and offers plenty of choice footage in the form of Nas's concerts, scrapbooks of old pictures, and even guided tours of his early childhood home and neighborhood. Many of the interviews with his brother Jungle, who ultimately became eclipsed by Nas's success, weave the fabric and the nuances of the album and corroborate the album's significance. As a hip-hop connoisseur myself, I give this documentary high marks because I, too, devote time to traversing the underground scene and finding those hidden gems that hardly ever receive airplay or go unnoticed by the majority of the listening public. As this documentary makes obvious, "Illmatic" could have just been pegged as just another urban street gangsta album. What elevates it is the power of Nas's adept communicative abilities and its desire to be the heartbeat of the misrepresented working man of color in a still very racist society. By documentary's end, Nas didn't claim to possess all the answers or to forecast the future. It is with sincerest hope that the people in power get wind of what Nas and others like him were illuminating in the effort to stop this regression before its too late. Lookout for Nas's upcoming album "Seasons Of Nasir" scheduled to drop later this year.