LFF: Nas – Time is Illmatic review

The starting point of Nas: Time is Illmatic, the debut documentary feature from director One9 and writer Erik Parker, is not just that Illmatic, Nas’ debut album, is a great album but that it is a perfect record.

It’s no surprise, then, to find that the film is reverential in tone, but what is perhaps most surprising about Time is Illmatic is how very rarely this favour gets in the way of an interesting story.

One9 and Erik Parker have taken a myopic view and, for the most part, stuck to it. Rather than give us a rundown of Nas’ highly successful career, or perhaps a smattering of contributions that sketch a light history of hip hop – we get only a small taste of such context – and details of the other albums that Nas released, the pair try to keep their focus laser-sharp on just Illmatic.

The album, for those who may be unfamiliar with it, is a pretty incredible work and is iconic for a great many reasons. It therefore can’t have been too much of a stretch to pull in a variety of interesting figures to talk about the record’s musical and cultural importance. Contributors such as Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, Pharrell, Dj Premier and many others do a fine job, but the real depth of story is in the revelations about the personal life of Nas, real name Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, and the area he grew up in, the area that inspired Illmatic.

The story is broadened out just enough to include Nas’ brother Jungle, their father Olu Dara and the plight of the Queensbridge projects, but the filmmakers always bring us back to Illmatic. The Queensbridge story only comes into focus when Jungle points at each young face from a photo that was taken in the project, and tells us that most, if not all, have been given some jail time; this then links back into One Love, one of Illmatic’s most thoughtful tracks, on an album that’s filled with them, comprised of imagined letters from Nas to his incarcerated friends.

Nas: Time is Illmatic may be a little technically patchy in places, with its mixed media formats most likely being a result of the long gestation period and wobbly filmmaking techniques possibly arising as a result of inexperience, but it tells a fascinating story rather well, and even those unfamiliar with the album in question – and even possibly those with no interest in hip hop at all – may still find a lot to chew on.

And it’s also incredibly hard to resist playing Illmatic the second the end credits are over. I know that I did.

Nas: Time is Illmatic is available now on VOD in America and is playing in select UK cinemas.

Update: Embedded below the trailer is a new Pete Rock Illmatic mixtape, produced to coincide with the release of the film.