Reliving Nas' seminal hip hop album in 'Time Is Illmatic'
Nasir “Nas” Jones of Queensbridge, NYC has a reputation as one of the fiercest lyricists throughout the East Coast. So it’s for good reason that Time Is Illmatic, the latest biopic on one of hip hop’s foremost and most formative personalities, was released this month, 20 years after he burst onto the scene with his game-changing debut album.
As hip hop documentaries go (and there’s been a few now), it’s not your typical rags to riches story. Nas reminisces on his childhood growing up in The ‘Bridge as relatively affluent, as opposed to the severe poverty that characterised much of the housing projects in New York’s five boroughs. On the contrary, a strong family unit seems to have been the foundation for his early youth, his jazz musician father providing a first contact with music.
But the tough realities of NYC’s housing projects are quickly laid bare as details of a family break up and the brutal murder of a close friend are drip fed through the array of Nas’ close friends and cohorts. Nas, just like so many young African Americans of his time, was forced to come to terms with a brutality the likes of which seem a tragic prerequisite for much of the hip hop community in the early ‘90s.
But it’s apparent this premature maturation lent itself kindly, in one respect, to the rapid development of Nas’ lyricism and visionary-esque word smithery, borne out of the ever-present outlet of hip hop music. Landing on the scene in the midst of a burgeoning beef between the boroughs, when MC Shan was pumping out of every boom box in Queensbridge, Nas quickly emerged as the pride of The ‘Bridge.
There is throughout the film however a rather distant attitude towards the sensitive social issues that defined Illmatic. It’s defining characteristic is an almost clinical caution, and as such represents a somewhat missed opportunity to thoroughly explore what makes Illmatic the most influential rap album of our times. We’re presented with data: a lyric deconstruction here, a meander through Nas’ former neighbourhood there; archive live-performance footage; associate interviews. But there’s an eerie detachment between Illmatic and retrospect, considering director One9′s privileged position of having access to the most important primary source of all – Nas himself.
What made Illmatic so compelling was the intrinsic bond between his rhetoric and the world around him, yet this detachment almost seeps from the screen. Undoubtedly, Nasir Jones as he exists today has grown far above and beyond his humble genesis, but the disconnect between pre- and -post still leaves a lingering feeling of emptiness. Even the end-credits studio acappella conclusion hits Mulholland Drive, Silencio levels of pretentious. What is ultimately so disappointing is that Nas has now become one of those ‘out-of-towners’, something that the film not only fails to hide but also actively portrays.
There’s no doubt of the potency and continued relevance of Nas’ revered debut long player within the hip hop canon, and Time Is Illmatic makes that abundantly clear on a musical level. But all great music is lent greatness by its context, the lyrical, often angst-filled format of hip hop especially so, and so, in truth, for a retrospective to so brazenly ignore the politics around such a definitive body of work ultimately leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
Time Is Illmatic is out now in cinemas across the UK.