Two decades have passed since the release of Nas’ seminal debut album, “Illmatic,” in which the hip-hop artist chronicles brutal inner-city life with a mix of autobiography, journalism and poetry. The album creates a near-cinematic vision, immersing listeners in a drama that vividly unfolds in their mind’s eye.
The new documentary film, “Nas: Time Is Illmatic,” recounts the circumstances leading up to the groundbreaking record. The film’s director, who goes by the name One9, begins with the formative years of Nas (born Nasir Jones) in a Queens housing project, where early influences included jazz played by his musician pop, Olu Dada.
Nas asserts that an underfunded public-school system failed to nurture his artistic inclinations; had his interest in drawing been developed, he says, he may have gone on to become a visual artist. Instead, he eventually dropped out after junior high, following his parents’ divorce. As Queens fell under crack cocaine’s siege, a burgeoning rap scene became his saving grace.
The cadre of celebrity testimonials from artists such as Pharrell Williams, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole bolsters the relevance of Nas’ music. Recollections from Nas’ brother Jabari (a.k.a. Jungle) and producers D.J. Premier, Large Professor, L.E.S., Pete Rock and Q-Tip truly enlighten, as they offer substantive perspective on lyrics and music samples.
Nas himself seldom graced the big screen after an ill-fated starring role in director Hype Williams’ underappreciated “Belly.” But here in One9’s documentary, he is articulate, introspective, candid and unexpectedly animated. Since many of the themes from “Illmatic” have become mere clichés in contemporary rap, this film serves as a reminder of the potential and the promise that hip-hop truly holds.
“Nas: Time Is Illmatic”
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 1 hour, 14 minutes.
Playing: AMC Burbank Town Center 8. Also on VOD.