The most fêted rap album of all time gets the documentary treatment in one9’s too-brief Time Is Illmatic, a surprisingly incisive diagram of the circumstances that led to a young MC from Queensbridge named Nasir “Nas” Jones becoming the poet laureate of East Coast hip-hop. That Illmatic has become a cottage industry unto itself is also thrown into stark relief, with the film taking pains to include recent footage of him performing the songs that put him on top—albeit sapped of the nuances you can hear in his husky, lilting cadence on the original album. (If anything, these promotional-ish clips of a middle-aged Nas barking his Illmatic bars to packed crowds serve as a reminder that live rap may have more in common with punk than people like to admit.) When Cornel West claims that Nas “had the courage to tell the truth about the dark side of black existence in America,” that’s great, but hardly trenchant given that 1994 also yielded albums like Scarface’s The Diary and Biggie’s Ready to Die. In other words, the commemorative tendencies of one9’s film make strange bedfellows with the stuff that will be catnip for Illmatic’s fans.
The producers who championed Nas when he was a small-timer—like L.E.S., DJ Premier, and Large Professor—all feature for around a minute apiece, usually explaining the inciting samples for songs like “Life’s a Bitch” and “NY State of Mind” before disappearing. As the film breaks down each track, cameo appearances from the ostensibly tape-recorded voices of Erykah Badu, J. Cole, and Hot 97’s Miss Info offer up exactly one reminiscence each, but it feels frustratingly like filler. (Veteran rap heads could dissect Illmatic live on camera, track-for-track, one hour apiece, and it still might not be enough.) One9 subtitles Nas’s performances of the songs, stressing his wordplay as what set him apart from the pack; MC Serch corroborates, more or less claiming he championed him because of lines like “Nasty Nas, you know how it runs/I’m waving automatic guns at nuns!” This is pretty much the party line: Nas’s success is invariably attributed to his writing, but never his flow, his skill for navigating the East Coast scene, or his ear for production. While the trivia value may feel tremendous, only One9’s interviews with Nas, his father, Olu Dara, and his brother, Jungle, manage to make the doc legitimately moving—a history lesson in popular culture. From these riches, one would hardly be blamed for wishing all artists would make, or at least sit down for, bio-docs on their seminal releases.
As he put it in “One Love”: How could Nas exist through the facts? In justifying what sounds like abandonment, Dara claims that school wasn’t suited to his sons’ temperaments, and Nas himself denounces an unsupportive, one-size-fits-all educational system. There’s a moment when Jungle surveys the film rolls from the Illmatic cover shoot, and comes across a group photo from just before Nas took off. He describes the fates of the many bygone friends in the picture—in almost all cases, long periods of incarceration, or a tragically young death. Cut to his little brother, who can only retort wearily: “That’s fucked up.” Nas’s apparent vulnerability here is the only reason the filmmaking doesn’t feel utterly pat; in the film’s climax, Nas and Henry Louis Gates reveal the Nasir Jones Hiphop Fellowship at Harvard University—an honest-to-goodness landmark that nonetheless lands feeling a bit like a corporate rollout. VHS footage of a scrawny teenage Nas rocking sweaty crowds in roughshod ’90s nightclubs makes the mind salivate after an even more detailed picture of Queensbridge, the way Nas experienced it for the first time—but with its cold-staring mix of confession, reportage, and survivor’s guilt, that’s what Illmatic is for.