Nas - Time is Illmatic - July 2015

‘Time is Illmatic’, the documentary on Nas’ ‘Illmatic’ album, has been out since last year – marking the 20th anniversary of his classic first record. Everything happens later in Berlin though, so I just got the opportunity to see it.

First of all, the realization that Illmatic came out 20 years ago makes me feel OLD. Realizing Nas was only 18 when he recorded his verse on Main Source’s ‘Live at the Barbeque’ – just two years older than I was when Illmatic came out – makes me feel like I have been wasting a lot of time.

The documentary is quick to establish the impact Illmatic had on Hip Hop when it came out. In quick cameos Pharrell Williams, Busta Rhymes, Kendrick Lamar and J Cole explain how the album influenced them and the way they looked at their craft, and that’s fine. Too often movies like this fall into the trap of endless celebrity talking heads explaining what the subject means to THEM, instead of giving actual insight into the subjecte itself. The interviewees in this case are either close to the matter or used very sparsely.

The first half is mainly used to set up the background of Nas and his childhood in the Queensbridge neighborhood. Henry Louis Gates JR gives a poignant, enlightening rundown on how the late forties GI Bill lead to social housing projects, to a white flight from the inner cities and to the creation of a drug economy in predominantly black communities. While this provided an interesting background to the ‘real life’ stories of his father, brother and childhood friends, it didn’t weaken the impact of the bitter reality in New York’s poorest neighborhoods one bit.

Besides setting the social-economical environment, one of the most interesting parts is the Queens/Bronx rivalry. One of the best moments of the film is Nas rapping the chorus to both MC Shan & Marley Marl’s ‘The Bridge’ and Boogie Down  Productions’ ‘South Bronx’. It’s also one of the only moments he seems to show any emotion about himself, his career and his legacy.

This might be the biggest problem with ‘Time is Illmatic’ – Nas is and stays a complete enigma. He goes through the motions of telling his story, but at no point you feel he is letting his guard down. Granted, growing up where he did, being emotionally open was probably not high on the list of priorities. His father states at one point that according to him, Nas to this day carries a sadness with him after his best friend Ill Will Graham was murdered. It’s hard to tell – it could be arrogance, it could be insecurity, it could be upbringing. Hell, it might be a combination of all. What I felt it might have been was the burden of being a guy that makes an album at barely 20 years old, that’s so layered, dark, intelligent and influential as ‘Illmatic’ was – how do you relate to people when you have a mind like that? He comes across as King Nasir Jones, looking down at the people around him, but knowing he’s not really a part of them. Which might exactly explain why he is the storyteller that he is – detached while being right in the middle. It’s a paradox that is unfortunately only explored a little bit here.

Regardless, ‘Time is Illmatic’ is a fascinating look at the creation of what without a doubt is one of the greatest and most influential Hip Hop albums - scratch that – ALBUMS ever made, even if it doesn’t bring any understanding of Nas as a person. On the other hand, what more do we need to know? All his feelings, fears and hopes are right there in those ten tracks on ‘Illmatic’.