Jay-Z may have laid claim to the title The Blueprint, but Illmatic remains the truest Rosetta stone of hip-hop, dictating the shape and methods that the genre would take in the coming decades. A twenty-year-old Nas wrote the Great American Rap Album in 1994 by pouring all the gritty details of a youth spent growing up in New York’s lethal Queensbridge projects into a pent-up debut. The result remains one of a small number of hip-hop’s unimpeachable masterpieces, inspiring the likes of Erykah Badu and Kendrick Lamar to create classics of their own. Time Is Illmatic director One9 keeps it real by demonstrating a serviceable understanding of rap’s roots and Nas’ place in its historiography, but the film’s overly congratulatory vibe can come off feeling fake.
Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones came of age in ‘80s Queens, an urban war zone rattled by the crack-cocaine epidemic and criminal activity as consistent and beyond control as the weather. Some of the most potent moments in the film come when it examines the sociocultural factors that converged to precipitate the advent of underground rap. One9 deftly wends in tantalizing, low-quality footage of old-school verses from canonized MCs to great effect. A variety of big-name voiceovers knowingly explain rap’s underpinnings as a form of self-expression in response to the gross injustices of everyday life in impoverished communities. A dissection of Nas’ line “I’m waving automatic guns at nuns” explains how the frequently outsized bombast of rap isn’t intended to be taken at face value, but as an artistic expression of institutional frustrations — a point so many tongue-clucking detractors of hip-hop still haven’t grasped.
The film wastes no time in taking on a hagiographical bent, however. Playing to one of the documentary form’s all-too-common pitfalls, One9 uses excessively fawning soundbites to elevate a man who declared “life’s a bitch and then you die” to larger-than-life status. The hyperbole comes early and often, with a childhood friend of Nas’ claiming “Every line was, like, the best shit I ever heard in my life.” An interview with Nas’ boyhood schoolteacher Ms. Braconi becomes Life Is Illmatic’s “you’ve cracked it wide open” moment when she explains how her student’s future domination of the rap game was evident in his prowess during arts and crafts time. Of course, a wordsmith as accomplished of Nas surely deserves most of these superlatives, which also have the good fortune of coming from such reliably insightful luminaries as Cornel West, Busta Rhymes and Pharrell Williams. But regardless, the film’s tone ends up too effusive.
Not that it can obscure what a compelling character Nas has become. His reputation alone grants him a mythic status, but the way he drops in and out of the voiceover to dispense gravel-voiced koans about hood life only amplifies that. But when One9 shows Nas strolling through his old territory like a local dude and clowning with the neighborhood faces, the resultant contrast underscores the rapper’s crucial point that he will always make his personal success a success for Queensbridge.
Time Is Illmatic is well-informed but inessential, a making-of featurette barely expanded to feature length at a trim 74 minutes. A handful of underserved viewpoints find a voice here, but the steady cheering for Nas threatens to muffle them. One9 makes the wunderkind behind Illmatic the star of the show, but anyone who’s heard the album knows the world is ours.