Time Is Illmatic: New Doc Goes Behind the Scenes of Hip-Hop’s Greatest Album


Nas entered the Beacon Theater in a suit. It was a nice suit, a cool grey number with a blue tie, well-tailored. He looked sharp. But Nas in a suit is not the same as, say, Jay-Z in a suit. Jay-Z in a suit looks like a man who has worked hard all his life so that he can rock a Tom Ford custom that costs more than a new Saturn. His legend is rooted in his arc, from drug dealer to rap star to mogul. Not a businessman, but a Business, man. Jay-Z in a suit is a visual manifestation of his legacy.

Nas in a suit looks merely like a man who knows how to dress for an occasion. This particular occasion was the premier of Time Is Illmatic, a documentary about his first album, at the Tribeca Film Festival. Nas in a suit is not Nas. Because no matter how many quality albums he has given the world since 1994, Nas is frozen in time in a black beanie, a black jacket, and brown Timbs, standing outside the Queensbridge projects with a bottle of cognac in his hand and a dozen of his people crowded around him.

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In Time is Illmatic, Nas says that he enjoys creating because he wants to leave something that shows he was here. He succeeded. Nas is in a suit on this night, twenty years after Illmatic dropped, because he created something that will far outlive everybody in this theater. Whether Illmatic is the greatest hip-hop album of all time is a debate for barbershops and late night living room weed sessions. What makes it timeless is that it captured the essence of an era in American history. It is an artifact of a certain time and place, cemented in the narrative of civilization, relevant to all societies who care to look back.

He notes in the film that he aimed to craft the perfect album. If he didn’t, he got closer than anybody else. Illmatic is a masterpiece of storytelling, richly detailed and lyrically brilliant, a brisk 10-chapter narrative setpiece taking us through the fear and despair and arrogance and joy and camaraderie and nostalgia and hope that make up the essence of adolescence inside the chaotic blight of early ’90s New York City.

Time is Illmatic, directed by One9 and written by Erik Parker, walks us through the elements that converged to form the world that Nas paints in the album. There’s the genealogy: Nas’s father and grandfather were musicians in Mississippi; his mother was a strong woman who provided the stable household many of peers lacked; and the parents fed him books on philosophy, history, politics. There’s Cornell West explaining the socioeconomic forces: from America’s ambitious housing project experiment to white flight to racist housing policies to the crack era that destroyed the inner-city. There’s Nas’s youth in the boiling cauldron that was Queensbridge in the 1980s: the barbecues, the hustlers, and an elementary school that was “like Rikers Island,” as his brother Jabari puts it.

On this journey toward Illmatic‘s birth, the film passes through some turning points, sometimes tragic, sometimes funny, consistently powerful. Nas and Jabari are thoughtful and vivid narrators, smart and introspective. Their voices carry the film.

In one scene, they recall when their father Olu Dara Jones was so disgusted with the quality of their junior high that he encouraged them to drop out after either grade and focus their energies on pursuing a vocation they could use in life. In another, the brothers describe the night when Nas’s best friend was shot to death shortly after the three of them returned from watching Aliens III. And in a scene that drew roars of laughter from the crowd, Nas explains his ambivalence over KRS-One’s “South Bronx”– the song was meant to one-up Queensbridge-native MC Shan’s hit “The Bridge” and Nas wanted to hate on it for that, but it was just too good to hate on.

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Time Is Illmatic is at its best when it gets wonky, diving deep behind the scenes of the album, burrowing into the nuances of what made it great. For instance: Q-Tip lecturing on how a single bar from “One Love” (“I heard he looks like ya. Why don’t your lady write ya?”) captures precisely how the prison system destroys low-income black communities.

The film’s mild flaw is that these moments don’t come often enough. Half of this doc is biography, with historical context and personal dramas leading up to the album’s release. Half is a track-by-track retrospective exploring Nas’s vision for the songs, each one offering an interesting production story and a particular chapter of the Illmatic narrative. But squeeze the two halfs together and the product feels condensed, rushed at times, like having a double cheeseburger taken away after two bites. In the doc’s opening, a series of hip-hop hall of famers gush about how great and revolutionary Illmatic is, but after that the film seems to skim over the details of what exactly made it so great and revolutionary.

But perhaps that’s beside the point. For hip-hop fans hold the greatness of Illmatic to be self-evident. When the film shows clips of Nas performing those songs, the lyrics are scrolling right there on the bottom of the screen, for all to reflect on and appreciate. Time Is Illmatic is a treat from start to finish because it is a 74 minute conversation about Illmatic. There is too much compelling content to think about what’s missing while you’re watching. It only hits you when the credits start to roll and you think, Oh that’s all?, but by that point you’re pulling out the iPhone ready to listen to hip-hop’s greatest album with fresh ears.

Seconds after the credits began to roll in the Beacon Theater, Illmatic’s opening track was pouring through the speakers. A curtain rose and there was DJ Green Lantern at the turntables and Alicia Keys at the piano. Then out came Nas, ready to perform the Great American Rap Album, fresh from a costume change, in a black beanie, a black jacket, and brown Timbs, a bottle of cognac in one hand and a mic in the other.