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Time Is Illmatic is a feature length documentary film that delves deep into the making of Nas' 1994 debut album, Illmatic, and the social conditions that influenced its creation. Twenty years after its release, Illmatic has become a hip-hop benchmark that encapsulates the socio-political outlook, enduring spirit, and collective angst of a generation of young black men searching for their voice in America. Written by
Nas: Time is Illmatic provides a closer look at the days leading up to and the eventual creation of Illmatic, one of the most beloved and acclaimed rap albums of all time, released in 1994 by Nasir Jones, more commonly known as Nas. Son of Olu Dara, a famous jazz musician, Nas is explored in Time is Illmatic with the format of an origins story, showing his childhood, his exposure to ganglife and street crime, and his firsthand accounts of the problems facing black communities. All of these features worked to fuel the creative juices for Illmatic, a brisk, forty-minute ride featuring uncompromising lyrical and production talent that, according to Nas himself, was created with the notion of showing people what the streets "sounded, tasted, smelled, felt, and looked like." To put it lightly, it was an album worthy of all five senses.
We see Nas's childhood wasn't burdened by poverty and the lack of privilege as much as it could've been, growing up in a housing project in Queensbridge, New York with his father, mother, and brother Jabari ("Jungle"). Nas, however, describes the kind of events that often took place when living in the projects, such as shootings, drug deals, and other illegal activities that made it desperately easy to fall prey to the wrong kind of people. Princeton professor and well known activist Dr. Cornel West elaborates on such conditions for the black community by saying that Franklin D. Roosevelt's G.I. Bill helped countless individuals build homes and adequate housing, leading to the inception of suburbs and middle class communities, but only about 2.1% of the money trickled down to African-Americans. With the creation of the suburbs, many black families were part of a working class breed, and lived in urban environments, leading to the creation of high-rise housing, packing as many people into a single building as possible, trapping them like sardines.
Nas talks about how he was disinterested in school, rarely feeling challenged and, eventually, stopped caring enough to continue with his education after eighth grade. Coming from Queensbridge, black, lower-middle class, and without education, Nas was the perfect candidate to end up like the crack dealers on the street, but Nas's true talent came in the form of rapping. Rapping was a pastime him and Jungle engaged in, eventually being approached by hip-hop artist Roxanne Shanté, who wanted him to perform at a festival at Queensbridge, where he could showcase his talents. It was a wild ride from there, with Nas, at ages seventeen and eighteen, working to showcase not only his genuine lyricism but his uncanny ability to spit, rhyme, and flow with every beat that could be thrown at him.
One of the most interesting chapters in the film comes when Nas talks about the animosity boroughs and communities had with one another in New York when Queensbridge began to be known for its rap. When a song by MC Shan and Marley Marl called "The Bridge" was released, a rap anthem boasting the talent and the potential of the Queensbridge community, a group by the name of Boogie Down Productions fired back with a diss track called "South Bronx," taking jabs at the community. MC Shan quickly refuted with "Kill That Noise," another fiery, instigating rap anthem, which was only followed by "The Bridge is Over," the sophomore hit from Boogie Down Productions, which sampled Billy Joel's "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" with a mean-spirited attack, devaluing the quality of Queenbridge's music. Recalling the escalating tension, which would later be described as "The Bridge Wars," Nas is nostalgic and even quietly self-reflective about all the emotions that were brought out during such a time.
The latter half of the documentary talks about the kind of lyrics that made Nas a notable force of hip-hop. Consider one of his lyrics, "when I was twelve, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus," or even another rhyme that went on to make headlines, "waving automatic guns at nuns." These hard-hitting, controversial lines cut deeper than shock value ever could; they were replicating tough, difficult emotions for Nas and his peers about the hellish conditions they were living under and the frighteningly unsafe community they were hailing from.
Finally, the telling scene of Time is Illmatic, which really sets the tone for the whole film and shows how close Nas was to danger and a path of destruction at all times, is when him and Jungle go through the interior artwork for Illmatic, showing a group of people, some of whom wanting to kill others standing a few feet away from them, all getting together, united for a photo on the album cover for one of their peers who had made it. Nas and Jungle go through the photos, picking out who died, who is locked up with/without bail, who was just released from prison, and so on; at the end of it all, the only words Nas can say are "that's f***** up." Frankly, that's about all I could say at that point too. Nas was so close to becoming another statistic and he rose above it all.
Nas: Time is Illmatic stands at a slender seventy-four minutes, and even though it's concentrated, it still manages to race by in a way that does more showcasing than elaborating. It chronicles a great deal of events, and talks a lot about Illmatic, even showing Nas on tour for the album, but it doesn't dig too deep into each particular song, nor does it offer more than minute-long interviews with the producers who worked on the album. It's unfortunate that such details couldn't be given more of a profile and more depth, but what we get is still a hard-hitting documentary that uncovers a great deal about how hip-hop transcends the idea of a conventional music genre into a lifestyle that people live and die for every day.
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