It’s unlikely that hip-hop documentary “Time Is Illmatic” will have many showings as thrilling as its opening-night slot at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, where it preceded an impassioned live performance by its subject, the artist born Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones and better known by his stage name: Nas. Still, this brisk, stylish and extremely heartfelt portrait of Nas’ rise from the housing projects of Queensbridge to the heights of hip-hop royalty ably stands on its own, marked by an admirable focus on the man and his music rather than hype and hagiography. Sure to be embraced by fans (but also a fine primer for neophytes), “Time” should have a long home-viewing shelf life following additional fest and select theatrical bookings.
In his feature directing debut, the former graffiti artist and graphic designer One9 smartly avoids trying for a comprehensive career portrait of Nas, instead centering on the rapper’s humble origins and the making of his landmark 1994 debut album, “Illmatic.” Comparable in its impact on hip-hop to that of Jackson Pollock’s splatter paintings on the art world, “Illmatic” seemed a prodigal work, constructed of airtight rhythms and intricate rhymes, steeped in the violent realities of ghetto life yet far-reaching in its lyric and musical allusions (including “samples” that ran the gamut from jazz to Michael Jackson), as intimate as a diary while also serving as a very public statement of artistic intent. Nas was all of 20 at the time, and best known for his electrifying guest rapping on popular singles by Main Source and MC Serch.
Two decades later, Nas is close to an eminence grise, but the figure who appears onscreen for much of “Time Is Illmatic” appears humbled by his massive success and is quick to acknowledge those who helped pave the way (like the pioneering female rapper Roxanne Shante, who gave the teenage Nas an early break as part of her crew), as well as those (like childhood friend Willie “Ill Will” Graham) who were less lucky at surviving the Queensbridge mean streets. To this, the film adds a carefully selected mix of testimonials from friends, family members, artistic collaborators and assorted lions of old-school hip-hop. But save for a couple of fleeting appearances by Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates, “Time” eschews third-party critical analysis in favor of keeping the focus on neighborhood and personal experience, a cinematic “trip down memory lane” to complement the one Nas rapped about on “Illmatic” itself.
The pic’s first half devotes much of its energy to anatomizing Nas’ childhood and early performance career, with particular attention to his parents — the jazz sideman Olu Dara and his wife, Ann Jones — who raised their two sons (Nas and younger brother Jabari, aka “Jungle”) in a bohemian cocoon of art, books and music very different from the Queensbridge norm. After a brief childhood flirtation with the trumpet, Nas had already begun writing rhymes by age 8. Curiously, it was Dara himself, by then divorced from Ann, who persuaded both boys to drop out of New York’s public school system (where he believed they were receiving an inferior, resource-starved education) after completing the eighth grade. He wanted them to follow their entrepreneurial dreams, which was easier said than done in the New York of the pre-Giuliani, crack-besieged late ’80s and early ’90s.
Fans of old-school hip-hop will take particular delight in the docu’s evocation of the neighborhood rivalries and MC battles that played out in the form of tracks like Marly Marl and MC Shan’s “The Bridge” and KRS-One’s “South Bronx,” and helped to stoke the young Nas’ creative fires. (The opening cut of “Illmatic” featured a prominent sample of the seminal 1983 hip-hop feature “Wild Style,” also excerpted here.) Returning today to the old neighborhood, Nas reflects emotionally on the devastation wrought by drugs and gang violence and how, but for a few strokes of luck, he too might have become another victim.
In its second half, “Time” shifts gears to the recording of “Illmatic,” with Nas and his quintet of illustrious producers (Nas, Large Professor, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, L.E.S. and DJ Premier) offering insightful, track-by-track deconstructions of the album’s most enduring cuts: “Life’s a Bitch,” “One Love,” “The World Is Yours” and “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” with its inspired sampling of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.”
The pic occasionally reveals its multiyear gestation period in the variable range of video formats used to capture the interviews, but otherwise sports a polished, professional sheen.