Review: Nas: Time is Illmatic – Engaging documentary on a hip hop landmark

TIME is Illmatic takes about four minutes in its opening to establish the earth-shattering importance of Nas’ 1994 opus, Illmatic. The album, celebrating its 20th year, is a merciless, comprehensive address to the social ills of growing up amidst poverty and dead-end housing. Here, for its 20th anniversary, it gets the handsome documentary treatment, demonstrating just how relevant the album’s message remains in a modern climate.

Illmatic is widely regarded as one of the most important albums of the last twenty years, and the film wants you to know that. A lot. It’s a little too celebratory of the masterpiece, almost ingratiatingly so, but it does note just how Illmatic captured the zeitgeist unlike any other rap album. Director/producer One9’s film is slickly edited, juxtaposing talking heads (among them Nas himself) with Super 8 concert reels and stock footage of the crack epidemic, including some Reagan grandstanding.

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Tracing his NY Queensbridge Projects roots, the documentary explores Nas’ upbringing, including dropping out of school and the tumultuous relationship between his parents, as one might expect from this sort of thing. It also, all too briefly, depicts Nas’ return to his impoverished old neighbourhood. We are struck by how similar modern Queensbridge is to the grainy black-and-white photographs from the 80s and 90s. We realise, to our dismay, that nothing has really changed in those 20 years since Illmatic dropped.

Nas himself is an engaging presence, none moreso than in that segment where he high-fives youngsters and poses for photos with the neighbourhood. Having spoken in the comfort of black-curtained studios and condos, it’s a refreshing contrast to find him waxing nostalgic in his hometown. It’s clear, however, that he’s eclipsed Queensbridge. He’s a god among mortals, and the people that he passes look at him with either double takes or confusion.

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The sections with Nas’ brother, Jabari ‘Jungle’ Jones, are the most effective. He’s a man brimming with knowledge and good humour about both his brother and the Projects, most poignantly of all when he scans the faces of a photograph (see above) taken during the Illmatic photoshoot, checking off the people who are either dead or in jail.

We all know just how seismic Illmatic was; the film takes too much time to hammer in that impact, often resembling a Classic Album mini-doc instead of an insightful analysis of African-American disaffection in New York. When it does address the latter, the film succeeds, but the balance is skew-whiffy. Perhaps this comes down to the 74 minute run-time, but more development on that front would have made a huge difference.

Regardless, Time is Illmatic is an engaging documentary about a fascinating subject, even when it’s not directly focused on said subject. It doesn’t quite capture the N.Y. state of mind, but it’ll definitely make you think about it. If nothing else, it’ll make you want to stick Illmatic on again, and it ain’t hard to tell how good that’ll be.

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