Nas – Time Is Illmatic
Thursday 9th October, 8.45pm – Ritzy Cinema, Screen 2
Saturday 11th October, 6.15pm – Odeon Covent Garden, Screen 2
This documentary celebrates the 20th anniversary of the release of one of the most revered and influential hip-hop albums of all time, Illmatic, released in 1994 by the then 20-year-old rapper, Nas. We meet Nas’ friends, family and some of the influential icons of the scene, exploring the musical, social and historical influences that birthed the album.
The fear, brutality and violence that characterised life in the Queensbridge projects of Nas’ youth, are brought vividly to life in the stories, photos and videos from that time. Nas’ childhood friend Ill Will was shot and killed two years before this album was released, as drugs tore apart African-American communities. There’s a poignant scene where Nas’ brother Jabari “Jungle” Jones, looks at the photo from the liner notes of the album. It shows Nas and his friends in a Queensbridge park back in 1994. He points at the faces in turn, telling us their fates. Most of them are now dead or in jail and it’s a bleak reminder of the life that could have awaited Nas, if not for his escape through music.
The filmmakers have managed to track down most of the people involved with the record, from the collaborators and producers to the cover photographer. The music itself is mainly heard live, with clips of Nas performing at various shows. The lyrics are helpfully subtitled during these performances, and the subsequent dissection of the intricate and careful rhymes throughout every song show off Nas’ lyrical dexterity, and help demonstrate to the uninitiated why this album is so highly regarded.
Nas’ father, jazz musician Olu Dara, features throughout. He appears playing cornet on the album itself, and he has much to say about the social ills of the New York projects. When Nas and his brother dropped out of school, he was supportive, encouraging them to better themselves and seek their own paths, comparing the public school system at that time to “enrolling them in hell”.
It’s a thorough exploration of the album and its genesis, but at only 75 minutes, it doesn’t overdo it. It’s unapologetically laudatory and reverential, but it never gets cloying. The sight of an eighth grade dropout having a scholarship named for him at Harvard University is a tribute to Nas’ vision and prodigious talent, and this film does him, and the album, full justice.
Nas: Time Is Illmatic is released on 9th October.
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Watch the trailer for Nas: Time Is Illmatic here: