VIFF Film Review: Nas Sheds Light on a Masterpiece Album

Despite it’s swift 75-minute length, Time Is Illmatic takes a deep look at the culture and surroundings that bled into Nas’s iconic debut album 20 years ago.

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Part sociology lecture, part journey through making of his seminal album, the film takes us on a journey through Nas’s life, from the influence of the projects and crack epidemic on his childhood, all the way to an intimate conversation with producer/rapper Q-Tip, who talks about the story behind the epistolary song “One Love.” The film doesn’t aim for an album breakdown, instead exploring and representing the environment which fostered it. And it’s a rare music documentary that focuses on how environment becomes a character and catalyst in an album – Nas’s brother Jabari “Jungle” Jones walks us through the Queensbridge projects, the place that took away his best friend Ill Will and gave him so much material to represent in the album.

In one of the most poignant scenes, Jungle looks at one of the album’s photos of Nas and his crew, and lists off those that are dead and in prison. When revealed to Nas, he’s in shock because he managed to get out of his rough neighbourhood and prosper. That privilege obviously weighs on him and lives in his lyrics: “I’m destined to live the dream for all my peeps who never made it.” He revisits old haunts and interacts with people from the neighbourhood without any of the celebrity fakery we’ve come to expect from people in his position.

Spanning his early influences, childhood, key tracks, and legacy, Time is Illmatic lionizes Nas, but viewers also come away with a richer understanding of the culture that shaped the evolution of the album. The film ends on a hopeful note as the 9th-grade dropout receives a fellowship named after him at the Harvard Hip-Hop Archive. He’s come a long way from the young boy with wisdom beyond his age on the cover of Illmatic.

If you missed the Nas: Time is Illmatic documentary at Vancouver International Film Festival, you can still catch the film and see the hip-hop artist perform the entire album live on October 16, 2014 at Vogue Theatre. Visit livenation.com for more information.