Illmatic (1994) is an album that needs no introduction for anyone even mildly acquainted with the world of hip hop. The debut LP from New York native Nasir “Nas” Jones, the record is a raw account of life in Queens, told through a perfect blend of poetic lyrics and experimental beats.
It influenced a generation of artists, and two decades after its release, it remains as relevant as ever, continuing to impact listeners on a global scale. As part of his celebration of this landmark year for Illmatic, alongside a world tour, Nas has brought out this documentary, in which he aims to shed some light on how his modern masterpiece came to be.
With a running time of only 74 minutes, Time Is Illmatic feels slight. Certainly music documentaries needn’t be overly long, as demonstrated by the recent concert movies of Katy Perry and One Direction (both surprisingly enjoyable). Still, the rich subject matter feels poorly presented here. A lot of ground is covered: Nas’s family and childhood; the early hip hop scene in ’90s NYC; the production of Illmatic, and its legacy. However, no one aspect is fully explored.
Part of the problem is that Nas is not the most responsive interviewee. By no means unlikable, he simply comes across as a man of few words. This is not ideal when we hope to learn from listening in a documentary about a lyricist.
The best aspect of the film is instead the insight we are given into his early home life growing up in the ghetto. This is in part due to the fact that Nas’s father Charles Jones III and younger brother “Jungle” do much of the heavy lifting. Through a blend of charismatic narration and a good amount of stock photos and footage, the audience are painted a picture of a neighbourhood wrought with poverty and crime, yet one bound by a strong sense of community.
It might seem strange to us that the murder of childhood friend “Ill Will” is only briefly touched upon, especially as it happened at a crucial time in Nas’s early career, yet this serves to demonstrate how regularly these tragedies occurred. It becomes apparent that the emotions Nas bottled up directly translated into his music; only in a place like Queens, with its high levels of social injustice and flourishing grassroots music scene, could an album like Illmatic grow.
However, although Nas’s life pre-Illmatic is well documented, the actually creation of his debut is somewhat lacking in this documentary. There is very little said about Nas’s goals and expectations for the album, other than he wanted to represent his real life.
We are told of all the big-name producers behind the tracks (DJ Premier, Pete Rock amongst others), yet we are not told how they came to work with him in the first place. Periodically we are treated to some nice moments of live performance, where certain lyrics are displayed onscreen and then dissected afterwards, though these are sadly few and far between.
Also greatly missing is any documentation of Illmatic’s legacy. There are several soundbites from noted hip hop artists declaring their love for the record, however these are no longer than a line at most. Furthermore, despite a recent tour that has spanned continents, we are shown very little in the way of concert footage.
A trip to Harvard at the climax of the documentary implies that the album is an artefact of social importance, but with little information given about this seemingly monumental moment, the audience is left with more questions than answers.
Nonetheless, Time Is Illmatic is definitely worth watching for all fans of the hip hop classic. It might not be the definitive making-of that some would have been hoping for, but regardless, you will almost certainly find yourself learning something new about the album. Plus, for those not familiar with Illmatic, what better way to get yourself acquainted with this 20 year old piece of musical history.