The towering rep of Nas's Illmatic challenges anyone seeking to comment on it further: After 20 years, plus the 2001 sequel, the 33⅓ book, and the countless essays, what could possibly be left to say?
Wisely, then, the doc Nas: Time Is Illmatic leans toward biography. The film traces the life of Nas from his childhood in the notorious Queensbridge housing projects up through the making and release of Illmatic. Director One9 skips the bulk of Nas's career -- which, suffice it to say, hasn't been as consistent as his debut -- to find Nasir Jones a 41-year-old elder statesman. Instead, Time Is Illmatic digs deep, taking us all the way back to the childhood of Nas's father, the jazz trumpeter Olu Dara Jones. Years later, in Queensbridge, Olu Dara found himself shocked by the harshness of his sons' childhood. "I went to enroll them in school -- it was like enrolling them in hell," he remembers.
Nas engineered his escape through rap. He dove into music, eventually surfacing on the New York rap radar as a guest on the Main Source track "Live at the Barbecue." His punishing intro verse — "When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus" — made Nasty Nas hot. Then Columbia Records found him.
The film argues that the greatness of Nas's debut album comes from how it captures a time, a place, and the painful choices that shaped the lives. The film understands that the most interesting thing about Nas is how he once converted 20 years of living into 40 minutes of art that transcends its genre, its era, even its medium.