There’s a lot to digest in this tidy little documentary about one of the greatest rap albums ever made. On its release, Illmatic, Nas' 1994 debut album, made an immediate and lasting impression on the world of hip-hop, but even twenty years after the fact, there’s still a surprising amount of context that you can add to this monument to New York’s past, then-present, and hopeful future.
Illmatic, the album, opens with a snippet of dialogue from Wild Style, Charlie Ahearn’s early 80s classic graffiti flick which trapped golden-era hip-hop culture in amber. It’s a loving nod over Nas’ shoulder at everything that came before. Like the album, Time Is Illmatic takes similar pains to go back to the bedrock of the art form, going so far as to bake in a crash course on the origins of “project housing” from none other than Dr. Cornel West, which sets the stage for young Nasir’s formative years.
I spent a lot of this film thinking about Jamel Shabazz’s photo book A Time Before Crack. By all means go check out his images of vibrant urban life in the shadows of New York’s tenements, but all of the hindsight-bittersweetness of New York in the early years of hip hop is right there in the title. This was the before, and it was glorious, and then there was everything that came after. When Nas says “I was trying to make you experience my life,” that’s the liminal era he was trying so hard to convey. He was there in the Queensbridge projects when crack started to take hold, and it’s those memories and experiences from his grade school years that informed the album as reference points.
It’s depressing to hear Nas’s younger brother, Jungle, rattle off the current whereabouts, now two decades on, of the men who are seen seated with Nas in the Illmatic liner notes: “He’s doin 15. He’s fightin’ a murder. He’s doin life in prison. He just got locked up, no bail. He just did a shit load of time in North Carolina.” Jungle, born Jabari Jones, is the unexpected beating heart of Time Is Illmatic. Nas is still connected to the streets, but his royalty status is surely an impediment to that lifeline. Jungle on the other hand is seemingly in his element strolling around in project courtyards with a drink in his hand.
One thing that the film avoids, perhaps wisely, is discussing literally anything Nas has put out since Illmatic dropped. I know that’s not the point of this film, but it’s entirely possible to walk away from this under the assumption that Nas put out just one album and hung it up. The gravitational pull of his debut was so great that it took him eight years and four albums to break the sophomore slump. The Illmatic followups It Was Written, Nastradamus, and I Am...( all riffed directly on Illmatic’s iconic cover, and even his fifth album, the first to step away from any visual Illmatic connections, was titled Stillmatic. Jay-Z famously dissed Nas’s “one-hot-album-every-10-year average” on “Takeover,” and while it’s a criticism that’s hard to argue against, it shows that not even Nas’ most visible adversary could deny the album’s greatness.
I would love to hear more from Nas about his creative struggles as an artist to follow up Illmatic, presented in the same unguarded and thoughtful way that he talks here about what it was like creating the album itself. The film presents the process of recording and releasing Illmatic as being practically painless, almost to a fault. It was blessed from its beginnings, with perfect beats falling into place effortlessly. There are struggles here, sure, but they’re emotional battles, the ongoing processing of scar tissue from a childhood spent in the projects.
The most valuable insight that Time Is Illmatic offers is a deeper appreciation of the precise balance that Nas managed to strike with the album. All the essential ingredients are added just-so, in the ideal order and amount. Sweetness, bitterness, optimism, sadness, all playing on each other in turn and to maximum effect. I can’t imagine that anyone hasn’t already spent time with Illmatic, but even if you think you know it inside and out, there’s some new facet to discover and appreciate after watching this.