If there is such a thing as perfection, it can be seen so vividly in One9’s documentary Nas: Time Is Illmatic. Ironically, it’s irrelevant whether or not you are a fan of rap music. For despite the film being centered on the creation of one of the most iconic hip-hop albums of all time, it’s about so much more. With an exploration of rap maestro Nas comes an inner look at the Projects of New York and the sense of community, tragedy and lifestyle that so often comes with it. What we feel come the end of One9’s documentary is just how lucky Nas was to escape. We are also hit with such an incredible sense of just how connected the rapper still is to his roots. These two elements drive the film, but do not engulf it.
The film takes us on a journey through time. From the early years of Nas’ life to his introduction to rap music to the recording and producing of that album Illmatic. With interviews and sound clips from big names in the hip-hop industry to intimate stories from the man himself, his father and brother Jungle, the documentary doesn’t leave any stone un-turned. But be aware, this isn’t a portrait of Nas’ life post-Illmatic, it’s very much an early-years look into his creative process. Those expecting an exploitation pic of his love life and faux pas should look away now. For true film fans, and music lovers, Time Is Illmatic will be treasured. And that, it deserves.
One thing that is seemingly unexpected is just how moving the documentary is. We hear stories and see pictures of young men exposed to the tough life of Queens, New York and the effect it tragically had on their lives. As Nas and Jungle recount their experiences of loss, we can’t help but feel somewhat heartbroken for them. Interestingly, they aren’t asking for pity and director One9 is sure to convey that. In fact, we aren’t really swayed in any direction, for that isn’t the aim of this tale. The aim is to demonstrate the utter talent of Nas and the impact his album had on musicians from the same genre. He isn’t exactly humbled by this, but he is incredibly aware of it and he’s put his success to good use. Starting a hip-hop programme at Harvard University, the rapper is making moves to shine a light on the roots of rap music and the truth behind the lyrics.
Images of Nas and friends during the making of Illmatic and footage from a recent show where his backdrop is his childhood housing estate exemplify what this documentary is all about; society and the influence it has on young black men in America. Political activism, gang culture and drug use are all thematic elements but not to the point of preaching. Every component is weighted correctly and the real focus stays on the Jones family. Seeing a young Nasir rap one verse at a local mix is truly inspiring and to know just what he has accomplished makes it all mean so much more. This isn’t a rags to riches story, not in the slightest, but it is an artistic and stylised look at a pivotal figure within the world of hip-hop. Through the use of archive photographs we are transported to 1990’s Queens and this is as close as you are going to get to a real-life depiction of lower-class living in the US on film.
Inspirational – in more than one sense -, emotive, compelling and genuinely interesting, Nas: Time Is Illmatic is quite easily up there with some of the best documentaries of the past fifteen years. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it shouldn’t be missed. Extraordinary.