MIFF Review: Time Is Illmatic

Blogged by: Review by Filmme Fatales contributor Sinead Stubbins 10 Aug 2014 View comments
If hip hop is the protest music of our generation, then Nas was one of the first to quietly and determinedly plant himself on the picket line. For purists of politicised hip hop, Queensbridge born and bred Nasir Jones belongs in the halls of hip hop history next to Public Enemy and N.W.A, infusing 808 party beats with the frustrations of everyday social and economic inequality in an eerily calm and resolute way. By the time his first album dropped, Nas was already considered a poet in a puffer jacket.
 


Directed by One9, ‘Time is Illmatic’ is a documentary that celebrates the 20th anniversary of Nas’ 1994 debut album Illmatic, a release that was in stark contrast to the pop sample-heavy hip hop being recorded in New York at the time (Biggie Smalls’ Ready to Die was also released that year). So, why does it matter? Although it didn’t garner huge record sales at the time, Illmatic is now considered one of the most influential and lyrically dense hip hop albums of all time, a slow burn that continues to hold up in an age when kids are still pulling triggers to bring fame to their name.
 
This is One9’s first film, which is surprising given how slick the documentary is. Much like the album it revolves around, ‘Time is Illmatic’ isn’t flashy, but is instead a subdued journey. That’s not to say it isn’t exciting; when fans hear that familiar “dang-da-dang-dang” of the intro to ‘N.Y State of Mind’ and see a very serious looking 20-year-old Nas standing still on a stage overrun with buddies, they’ll undoubtedly get a wave of goosebumps.
 
The film is incredibly extensive in its exploration of the elements that led to Illmatic. We meet Nas’ third grade teacher who tells us he always had a gift for self expression, his jazz musician father recalls giving Nas his first instrument, his charismatic brother Jabari reels off the list of literature available to them as a child – from Chinese philosophy to Aesop’s Fables. 



In terms of authenticity and having the authority to talk about the struggle of the projects (if that’s a concept that should matter in hip hop anymore) Nas has it in spades. From watching his best friend Ill Will be shot in the street to observing the crack trade quickly polluting his community, Illmatic becomes an album that is a living and breathing record of the degradation of 1990s Brooklyn. The movie is as important for documenting ‘90s hip hop as it is exploring the social ramifications of housing projects.
 
Regardless of your level of hip hop fandom, ‘Time is Illmatic’ is an interesting and well-made music documentary. Annoyingly, although the film shows the lead up to the album’s release it doesn’t explore what happened once Illmatic came out (except for a 30 second sound bite from Pharrell and Busta Rhymes at the beginning). The pulpier aspects of Nas’ later career didn’t need to be represented necessarily (Kelis! Matching engagement grills!) but negating to mention Nas’ beef with Jay Z seemed like a missed opportunity to discuss the deviating paths of New York hip hop at that time. Perhaps that’s the sign of a good documentary; leaving you wishing you knew the next chapter. 
 

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