The early ’90s were hip-hop’s Renaissance, Summer of Love and British Invasion combined. And Nas, born Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones in 1973 to a rough Brooklyn and Queens, became its reigning poet barely out of his teens. You won’t get any Jay Z dishing in Nas: Time Is Illmatic, an earthy, well-considered doc by ex-graffiti artist One9—just a straight, inspiring rise from Nas’s early block-party improvs and literary self-improvement to the making and release of Illmatic, his supple 1994 debut that raised the stakes for an entire genre.
Embracing—yet redeeming—several clichés of the rapper profile, One9 returns with his subject to the rundown Queensbridge housing projects of his youth, where the film doubles down on its mission to evoke a gunshot-spooked childhood. Nas’s household was a sanctuary, where he and his younger brother were encouraged by their jazzman dad to drop out of poor public schools and aim higher. (Several friends were not as fortunate, as we see when Illmatic’s album photo is given a where-are-they-now size-up of fatalities.) The way forward was music: Time Is Illmatic gains traction with early humor as neighborhood feuds emerge, given swaggering voice in tracks like Marly Marl and MC Shan’s “The Bridge” and KRS-One’s “South Bronx.”
The final third is a crush of genius, with several Nas tracks (including his lovely, Michael Jackson-sampling “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”) receiving the kind of detailed breakdowns rare in pop-artist conversations. The portrait misses out on discussing cultural impact, but the trade-off is a full-bodied tale of bootstrapping, sure to turn on any budding artist in the audience.
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