Nas: Time Is Illmatic

Directed by One9

Starring Nas, Alicia Keys, Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip and Pete Rock

Time Is Illmatic is a feature length documentary film that delves deep into the making of Nas' 1994 debut album, Illmatic, and the social conditions that influenced its creation.


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  • ★★★½ review by Steven Sheehan on Letterboxd

    The wait for the great modern hip hop documentary continues. Admittedly, this is a huge disappointment for me, such were the lofty expectations I had developed. For personal reasons, reasons that reach back to 1994 when I was 18, hearing Nas' Illmatic album for the first time was a life changing experience. One of those times in your life when a work of art encapsulates, freeze frames your aspirations, your thoughts, expressing the emotions you can't quite articulate.

    Before Sean 'Puff Daddy' Combs dragged rap full-time into the mainstream, the culture was still heavily rooted in its underground beginnings. Some artists were achieving big album sales but no-one wanted to take the full acclaim of going mainstream, everything had to be 'keepin' it real'. Authenticity was the Holy Grail up until the mid-90's.

    First time director One9 is careful to create a backdrop for the development of this landmark album. He sets the scene through the young eyes of Nas(ir Jones) and his brother 'Jungle', looking back on the changes in urban New York that created run-down housing projects like Queensbridge where Nas and countless other rappers were raised. Primarily the time leading up to the creation and release of Illmatic is the films main focus, the impact Nas' family, educational and social circle had on his early years.

    Running at a lean 74 minutes it feels like a missed opportunity to not only balance the man behind the album but also more in depth examination those who helped him create it. Producers DJ Premier, Pete Rock, L.E.S, Large Professor and Q-Tip are not given much room to expand on their involvement, each appearing for only a minute. We see Nas on his recent Illmatic tour performing the songs on stage, subtitles highlighting the importance of the content. The ten tracks are skipped through relatively quickly making this feel less a celebration of the album but more of a documentary on Nasir Jones himself. With an extra half hour taken to delve into the production elements, combined with the establishment of Nas' personality around the album, something really special could have emerged.

    What made Illmatic so special was the combination of outstanding production by some of the best producers of that time and lyrical content that revolutionised the narrative approach of rap. A precocious 21-year-old was stringing together cinematic descriptions of the world around him, reflecting the harsh realities of inner city life without glorification. This was no NWA 'Straight Outta Compton'. When you hear the opening night time stalking beat of 'New York State of Mind' you are taken on a journey into the dark streets of the city, to places that even on record send up a chill up your spine.

    The irony is that despite receiving huge critical acclaim (a rare 5 mics awarded by the then Holy Bible of rap, The Source magazine) record sales were terrible. Nas never went onto match the artistry heard on his debut, the pressures of achieving commercial success sending him toward chasing platinum certifications. The documentary does capture the essence of rap of from that period, what many refer to as the Golden Era, before it was thrown into the corporate machine. For those wanting to reminisce this will offer a window to look back with fond memories. For anyone wanting to take a look at what rap music can achieve when the barometer isn't only return on investment, this is a good starting point.

  • ★★★½ review by Silent J on Letterboxd

    Nas has got BARS. All types of bars. You name 'em.

    Rap bars. Chocolate bars. Vanilla bars. Hershey's bars. Mars Bars. Kit Kat bars. Bruiser Bars. Nogger Bars (I said NOGGER with an O so don't you start).

    If you like any of those bars, then you will like this documentary chronicling Nas' first album; Illmatic.

  • ★★★★★ review by OnFilm on Letterboxd

    What can I say, It's Nas. Legend.

  • ★★★★½ review by Matthew Donahue on Letterboxd

    I could have watched this all day. Great insight to one of the most influential rap albums ever.

  • ★★★½ review by Bendik Kaalaas on Letterboxd

    Nas: Time Is Illmatic is a good documentary, and a nice watch whether you're familiar with the artist's famous 1994 album or not. The film looks at Nasir Jones' childhood in the Queensbridge projects, and how this harsh environment shaped his music.

    I haven't been listening very much to this kind of music for very long, but after the 20th anniversary of Illmatic earlier this year I looked it up, gave it a listen and I've been listening to it constantly ever since. I wish they would be more in-depth, I think 20 more minutes would help make it even more interesting, but all in all I can't complain. It's a nice and easy watch, and having the lyrics on-screen was definitely a great choice, as Nas' lyrics are what makes him stand head and shoulders above most other rappers.

    I would recommend giving this a watch, but actually sitting down with the album with the lyrics in front of you will probably be more rewarding.

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