Nas’ eternal classic debut album gets diced and dissected in Time Is Illmatic, a 10-years-in-the-making documentary by director One9 and writer Erik Parker. The film does more than merely dive into the rhymes and melodies on wax; it brilliantly tells the life and times of one of the most gifted lyricists hip-hop has ever heard, and illustrates how those tales shaped his masterpiece. There are occasional laughs, but this is mostly a stone-faced affair that will fascinate any fan of the culture. After watching last night’s premiere (Sept. 30) at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), these seven aspects of the film left the biggest imprint in our mental. —John Kennedy
Time is Illmatic hits select theaters tomorrow (Oct. 2) and will be available on Video On Demand/digital platforms beginning Oct. 3.
Roxanne Shanté’s challenge
Once upon a time, long before he’d don the nickname Nasty, Nas was a struggle MC. Still, Roxanne Shanté saw the future legend kicking rhymes with his boys and invited them to perform with her at a park jam. After stumbling and snickering through their lyrics in an impromptu audition, Roxanne motivated the pubescent aspiring rappers to step their rap game up in the most effective way possible: by threatening to put hands on them. “She was bigger than us, and we believed her,” Nas remembers with a smile.
The story of Ill Will’s murder
You get to understand why Nas has immortalized Ill Will throughout his career. His best friend’s death put a battery in Nas’ back to succeed by any means, but also forever changed his life outlook. His dad, Olu Dara, says that he saw a cynicism in his first-born following Will’s murder, a demeanor he still sometimes sees today. It explains why some of Nas’ greatest songs also tend to be his most morose.
Pete Rock recreating the beat for “The World Is Yours”
The boom-bap god remembers stumbling on Ahmad Jamal Trio’s “I Love Music,” hearing the loop and chopping it up, seasoning the melody with some unorthodox percussion. Rock says Nas was instantly captivated, and eventually convinced him to sing on the hook.
Pretty much any time Jungle is on camera
Nas’ baby bro literally steals the show with his unintentional comic relief throughout Time Is Illmatic. The Charlie Murphy to Nas’ Eddie, Jungle elicits laughs during even the most solemn moments, such as when he relives being shot (“Don’t tell Mommy!” Jungle remembers saying). He’s got a natural charm and hood sincerity that could be reality TV gold.
Q-Tip’s deconstruction of “One Love”
The producer gets deep on the lyrics of the audio jail mail “One Love,” zooming in on a particular couplet from the first verse: “I heard he looks like ya/Why don’t your lady write ya?” From that line alone, Q-Tip delves into the devastating, double-pronged impact of the prison-industrial complex. He explains how incarceration emasculates and imprisons the person doing time, while simultaneously destroying the family structure and poisoning the hope of loved ones on the outside. It’s one of many moments that help you to realize that Illmatic is more than just an album—it’s a sobering socio-economic portrait of ghetto plight.
Nas meets a five-year-old kid in Queensbridge also named Nasir
The love Nas receives when going back to his old Queensbridge stomping grounds is palpable. But he gives back, too. When a little boy reveals that his middle name is Nasir, the hometown hero slaps him five and tells him that anyone who bears their name is a king. It’s touching and bring’s Illmatic’s story full circle.
Illmatic’s thug roll call
There’s a photo in the Illmatic booklet that pictures Nas on a park bench with a mob of friends and Queensbridge locals. In a particularly chilling scene, Jungle details the fates of most of the faces pictured, which is overwhelmingly jail or untimely death. In response, Nas’ expression is numb, leaving a long, dead silence before finally mustering up the words: “That’s fucked up.” You get a tinge of survivor’s guilt, plus his own personal responsibility to represent for those locked inside or buried below. It sums up the sense of despair that characterizes Illmatic.