Time Is Illmatic: New Doc Goes Behind the Scenes of Hip-Hop's Greatest Album

Categories: Film and TV

Albert Samaha
Few pleasure like Nas, in a black beanie, performing Illmatic.
Nas entered the Beacon Theater in a suit. It was a nice suit, a cool grey number with a blue tie, well-tailored. He looked sharp. But Nas in a suit is not the same as, say, Jay-Z in a suit. Jay-Z in a suit looks like a man who has worked hard all his life so that he can rock a Tom Ford custom that costs more than a new Saturn. His legend is rooted in his arc, from drug dealer to rap star to mogul. Not a businessman, but a Business, man. Jay-Z in a suit is a visual manifestation of his legacy.

Nas in a suit looks merely like a man who knows how to dress for an occasion. This particular occasion was the premier of Time Is Illmatic, a documentary about his first album, at the Tribeca Film Festival. Nas in a suit is not Nas. Because no matter how many quality albums he has given the world since 1994, Nas is frozen in time in a black beanie, a black jacket, and brown Timbs, standing outside the Queensbridge projects with a bottle of cognac in his hand and a dozen of his people crowded around him.

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In Time is Illmatic, Nas says that he enjoys creating because he wants to leave something that shows he was here. He succeeded. Nas is in a suit on this night, twenty years after Illmatic dropped, because he created something that will far outlive everybody in this theater. Whether Illmatic is the greatest hip-hop album of all time is a debate for barbershops and late night living room weed sessions. What makes it timeless is that it captured the essence of an era in American history. It is an artifact of a certain time and place, cemented in the narrative of civilization, relevant to all societies who care to look back.

He notes in the film that he aimed to craft the perfect album. If he didn't, he got closer than anybody else. Illmatic is a masterpiece of storytelling, richly detailed and lyrically brilliant, a brisk 10-chapter narrative setpiece taking us through the fear and despair and arrogance and joy and camaraderie and nostalgia and hope that make up the essence of adolescence inside the chaotic blight of early '90s New York City.

Time is Illmatic, directed by One9 and written by Erik Parker, walks us through the elements that converged to form the world that Nas paints in the album. There's the genealogy: Nas's father and grandfather were musicians in Mississippi; his mother was a strong woman who provided the stable household many of peers lacked; and the parents fed him books on philosophy, history, politics. There's Cornell West explaining the socioeconomic forces: from America's ambitious housing project experiment to white flight to racist housing policies to the crack era that destroyed the inner-city. There's Nas's youth in the boiling cauldron that was Queensbridge in the 1980s: the barbecues, the hustlers, and an elementary school that was "like Rikers Island," as his brother Jabari puts it.

On this journey toward Illmatic's birth, the film passes through some turning points, sometimes tragic, sometimes funny, consistently powerful. Nas and Jabari are thoughtful and vivid narrators, smart and introspective. Their voices carry the film.

In one scene, they recall when their father Olu Dara Jones was so disgusted with the quality of their junior high that he encouraged them to drop out after either grade and focus their energies on pursuing a vocation they could use in life. In another, the brothers describe the night when Nas's best friend was shot to death shortly after the three of them returned from watching Aliens III. And in a scene that drew roars of laughter from the crowd, Nas explains his ambivalence over KRS-One's "South Bronx"-- the song was meant to one-up Queensbridge-native MC Shan's hit "The Bridge" and Nas wanted to hate on it for that, but it was just too good to hate on.

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