Film Review: ‘Time Is Illmatic’ Documentary Pays Homage to Nas’ Seminal 1994 Hip-Hop Classic

BILLBOARD – OCTOBER 7, 2014: “Film Review: ‘Time Is Illmatic’ Documentary Pays Homage to Nas’ Seminal 1994 Hip-Hop Classic” by Paul Cantor

Film Review: ‘Time Is Illmatic’ Documentary Pays Homage to Nas’ Seminal 1994 Hip-Hop Classic

By Paul Cantor | October 07, 2014 5:00 PM EDT

Nas at the Queensbridge Bench Celebration in 1993 for Time Is Illmatic.

Few albums in hip-hop history are as universally celebrated as Nasir “Nas” Jones’ 1994 debut, Illmatic. But the story behind the LP’s creation — the concepts, production process and societal influences that put Nas at the forefront of the rap vanguard — is subject matter less explored. Twenty years after Illmatic‘s release, the documentary Time Is Illmatic, from first-time filmmakers One9 and Erik Parker, aims to put the album into a more historic and visual context.

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Through archival video footage, photographs and interviews, Time Is Illmatic tells the origin story of one of rap’s greatest MCs, smartly focusing on personal and sociological factors that shaped him and his music. This is where the film shines: Slowly, we learn how the rapper’s father, Olu Dara, a well-traveled jazz trumpeter, turned Nas on to music, books, art and black history; the effects of the Great Migration, segregated public schools and the crack epidemic on the Queens, N.Y., housing project Nas grew up in; and how Nas was inspired to take his music seriously after the murder of childhood friend Will “Ill Will” Graham.

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And then, of course, there’s the well-documented narrative of how Nas was discovered by producer Large Professor and sought out by MC Serch and A&R exec Faith Newman, who signed him to Columbia Records and put him in the studio with legendary beatmakers such as DJ PremierPete Rock and Q-Tip. The lattermost part of the story is perhaps the documentary’s glaring weakness, as a huge chunk of the album’s tracks go unexplained or are glossed over. No sooner does that investigation begin before we’re transported to present-day Harvard University, where the Nasir Jones Hip-Hop Fellowship is announced.

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That feel-good moment of triumph typifies the documentary, which sometimes struggles to negotiate romantically paying homage to its central character and truly explaining the nuts and bolts of the album’s creation. Time Is Illmaticis an enjoyable film — beautifully shot, cleverly edited and well narrated, all the hallmarks of a great documentary — but still, it may leave you feeling as if the story isn’t quite complete. And that’s not very illmatic at all.

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 11 issue of Billboard.

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