Nas: Time is Illmatic - Movie Review by Monte Yazzie

Nas: Time is Illmatic Dir: One9


“I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death/beyond the walls of intelligence life is defined/I think of crime, when I’m in a New York State of Mind”. Twenty years ago a twenty-year-old New York rapper named Nasir “Nas” Jones released his debut album “Illmatic”. Twenty years have passed and “Illmatic” is still an iconic work of musical art. With charismatic yet thought-provoking and candidly insightful lyrics, accompanied by production by some of hip-hop’s most elite producers at the time, Nas weaved masterfully a melancholy journey through the rough and tough daily life in the Queensbridge housing community he grew up in. Though, amidst the harsh street narrative is still a hopeful young man with aspirations and dreams who was blessed with an unquestionable skill with language.


“Nas: Time is Illmatic” watches the rise of a young man towards the defining moment in his short life, seeing opportune circumstances fall at the right place at the right time for his gifts to shine in ways that separated him from others. Whether his upbringing with equally exceptional parents who guided his early musical ambitions or motivations to change the trajectory of life that was consuming young men in his neighborhood, it’s the kind of success story emulated in heroic tales where the integral character rises, falls, and then rises even higher. In other terms it’s the American dream.


Dissecting the album song by song, director One9 shows the many attitudes and personalities that went into each. It’s interesting to see the assuredness of the producers working with Nas; many of these producers, like Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest and DJ Premier from the equally gritty hip-hop group Gangstarr, were already established and collaborating with some of the biggest names in hip-hop. But as soon as they heard Nas on the microphone it’s like they innately understood that Nas was something unique. While this part of the film is filled with the head-nodding tracks from the album and insightful anecdotes from those present in the studios, it’s not as compelling as the personal parts of the documentary. The poignant interviews with Nas and his musician father display an interesting growth of the father/son dynamic. The film utilizes defining events, like the death of a close friend, the difficulties of a broken home, or sudden acts of neighborhood aggression, to display the struggles of separation from the desperate environment that Nas and his friends and family have fought and are still fighting through. In one poignant scene Nas is looking at a picture of the people from his neighborhood most of whom have all, in some way, been swallowed up by drugs and crime.


“Nas: Time is Illmatic” portrays how this classic album came together but most importantly it explains the reasons why. One part history lesson and one part character analysis, the documentary easily and engrossingly moves between both aspects, also demonstrating how music changes and, in some cases like “Illmatic”, how it gets better with time. The album cover for “Illmatic” depicts young Nasir Jones striking a look of maturity and ambition. What is reflected in the album and this documentary is the same.


Monte’s Rating / 4.00 out of 5.00