Trying to explain the cultural significance of hip-hop—or any style of art, really—to a non-follower can be a dicey undertaking. The temptation to over-dramatize or to over-contextualize is often too great to resist, which makes the idea of a feature-length oral history that recounts the making of a single album seem like the height of hubris. Very few albums could withstand that kind of treatment, but Nas’ groundbreaking debut album, 1994’s Illmatic, is one of them. Nas: Time Is Illmatic, the directorial debut from multimedia artist One9, opened the Tribeca Film Festival this year, a fitting distinction as this is a quintessentially New York story—a story about one artist and one album, but also a story about the history of hip-hop and the way borough rivalries bred innovation, about how crack annihilated a community, and about the state of the world just over the Queensboro Bridge.
One9 and writer Erik Parker began working on a making-of project centered on Illmatic a decade ago, for the album’s 10-year anniversary, and the two collaborators’ tenacity and familiarity with the source material shows. They were able to track down just about every person alive who may have had something to say about the making of the record, and they have weaved all those interviews and images into a compelling snapshot of a moment, an artist, a family, and a neighborhood. Every element of this album is examined, from the iconic cover art to the liner notes to the production to the lyrics. Nothing seems to get short shrift, including Nas’ parentage, childhood, education, and musical beginnings. Yet, at a brisk 75 minutes, the film doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Notably, the two most dynamic interviewees are Nas’ father, jazz trumpeter Olu Dara, and Nas’ brother, Jabari “Jungle” Jones. Both men seem to be in an indirect competition to steal the movie away from the rapper, spinning tales that are at turns humorous and contemplative about the way all their lives turned out. Olu Dara, especially, has his share of great lines. When describing the public school system at the time, he equates enrolling his sons in school to “enrolling them in hell.” When Jungle recounts the 1992 shooting that injured him and took the life of Nas’ best friend, “Ill Will” Graham, wounds that are more than two decades old seem fresh.
One9 applies enough emotion and visual flourishes to steer clear of hacky Behind The Music territory, and it’s an incredibly smart choice to subtitle the lyrics during the performance scenes so that the intricate wordplay and incisive observations aren’t lost on the uninitiated. In what is probably the film’s most poignant scene, Jungle looks at the liner notes and remembers the day a photo was taken. It’s a photo of Nas and a group of people from the neighborhood. One by one, he explains the fate of each person in the picture—most of whom are men no longer around, either due to death or prison—and Nas notes how close he came to being one of those stories. Time Is Illmatic finishes strong, portraying how an eighth-grade dropout is now the namesake of a fellowship at Harvard University’s Hip Hop Archive.
Where the film falls short is when it allows the talking heads to take the narrative away from Nas, his family, his collaborators, and his neighborhood. As much as two lines of praise from Alicia Keys or Erykah Badu or Kendrick Lamar validates Illmatic’s permanent place in the hip-hop lexicon, and as persuasive as Cornel West’s somber speechifying gets, it’s far more affecting to hear Q-Tip wax philosophical about the wide-reaching destruction of incarceration on a community, about its power to destroy hope, and how that played into his production of “One Love.” While Time Is Illmatic is probably unmissable for anyone considering themselves a hip-hop head, there’s also value here for a casual viewer and those curious about the ponderous vision of an artist and his 20-year-old reportage on the goings-on at home.