I’m taking rappers to a new plateau, through rap slow/My rhymin’ is a vitamin held without a capsule/The smooth criminal on beatbreaks/Never put me in your box if your sh*t eats tapes.
In 1994, these words from the ambitious 20-year-old MC Nas were fresh, but no one knew they were prophetic—except for the MC behind them. Time Is Illmatic provides a rare opportunity to see behind the braggadocio, behind the bars, behind the struggle, and behind the triumph.
Tracking Nas as a Black boy growing into a Black man in New York City during the 1970s and ’80s, the film mirrors the critically acclaimed and genre-redefining story of the making of Illmatic, Nas’s 1994 debut, with images further illustrating just how exceptional a story it is. Time Is Illmatic touches on many topics that have become all too familiar when discussing the Black experience in America in the “post civil rights era”: the systematic segregation of public housing; a glaringly deficient public education system; the long-lasting impact of the crack epidemic on communities; and the prison industrial complex, just to name a few.
With commentary throughout provided by fellow Queens MC and hip-hop legend Q-Tip, Dr. Cornel West, Nas’s younger brother Jungle, and Nas’s father, accomplished jazz musician Olu Dara, the documentary doesn’t hesitate to explore the social and political environment surrounding the development of Nas—a brilliant artist uplifted into the hip-hop canon upon the release of his debut.
A reflective Nas and Jungle guide us through their lives from a very young age. A detailed look at the books and influences provided by their father’s travels gives viewers insight into the shaping of a gifted young mind. The brothers recount the moments that thrust them into maturity, like the departure of their dad from the family’s home, and the death of close friend and collaborator William “Ill Will” Graham. To see a young Nas progress from rapping for Jungle in their bedroom, to recording with pioneering producers like Large Professor, Pete Rock and DJ Premier, to rapping on stage for thousands is the kind of real life story of triumph we see far too rarely.
As Illmatic celebrates its 20th anniversary, Nas and company have spent the year serving reminders that underneath the Swarovski crystal-studded mask of modern day rap, there are very humble roots and stories that arguably still provide the greatest showcase of the genre’s ability to affect. There’s a period in Time Is Illmatic where some of the most talented and prolific artists of the last 20 years offer praise that must make Nas proud.
Pharrell and Kendrick Lamar talk about how Nas’s storytelling impacted their ability to understand and create their own voices. Erykah Badu offers that Illmatic is a direct inspiration for her critically acclaimed album, Baduizm. Alicia Keys may sum it up best when she says “…[Illmatic] will never not be a classic.”
Written by music journalist Erik Parker and directed by One9, what makes this film different is that the filmmakers are obviously true fans of the artist, and actual products of the legacy of the album. Their interaction with the material seems profoundly special. They may have spent 20 years nodding their heads and repeating the lyrics displayed onscreen as viewers watch footage of a young Nas in early performances and studio sessions, rattling off the dense and complex, yet inviting and relatable, lyrics that have defined his career.
By spending almost equal time exploring the backstory of Nas as they do on the characters and environment that provided the details in Illmatic, One9 ends up creating a documentary that’s as smart and complex as its subject.