Nas, Jabari “Jungle” Jones, Q-Tip, Large Professor, Pete Rock
“NAS: TIME IS ILLMATIC” captures the creative process and evolution of a young Nas in his entrance into rap success and Hip-Hop legend that came about through his debut Illmatic. Twenty years later, Nas returns to his childhood home in Queensbridge, to share stories of his upbringing, his influences and the obstacles he faced before his major label signing at age 19.
Illmatic is a classic album. Even if I’d never listened to it enough times to make my head explode, I’d know that I’m supposed to feel this way. From the moment it was released, Illmatic was surrounded by hype and fascination; all of it earned, but still exhausting all the same.
Twenty years later, Nas–and everyone else involved in the making–are taking part in a year-long exercise in self-congratulation. Nas has been on tour all year performing the record in its entirety and now, we have this: the definitive tale of Illmatic and how it came to be. For a lot of people who follow Hip-Hop and follow Nas, we’ve heard this story a million times–we’ve heard it so much, we know it as though we were there–yet despite this, watching Time Is Illmatic caused me to get swept up in history like it was the first time again.
The documentary takes the account of Nas’ upbringing in Queensbridge in New York: the influence of his father, Jazz musician, Olu Dara, the love of his mother Ann Jones, the harshness of living in the projects when the crack epidemic hit and the building blocks and moving pieces that eventually became his magnum opus.
The stories that reflect Nas’ pro-Black leanings and the grim realities of watching your friends lose their lives or end up in prison are heartbreaking and provide the backbone to the film. One moment in particular stands out near the end of the film: Jabari, Nas’ brother, reflects on the lives of various people photographed for the album booklet. It’s evident that only Nas made it to a better life and it’s chilling and an aggravating reminder of a world that has failed too many.
The stories and anecdotes about various songs that either were on the album or led to it are fine. For a first timer, these will bring you inspiration and warm feelings, but if you’ve heard them before–as many have–it gets a little harder to forgive the film’s deserved moment of self-indulgence. Still, this is a story that is worthy of praise, even if mine may seem a bit faint. Nas was a kid failed by the system and left to his own devices by the world and what he created was something that has stood the test of time. An aural masterpiece vivid in it’s ugliness, menace and despair yet still glimmering with hope. Twenty years later people still love this album and they’ll love it the same way in another twenty years. Time is still illmatic.
Nas: Time Is Illmatic opens today in select theaters.