Friday, July 24, 2015

Time is Illmatic

Directed by One9.
2014. Rated R, 74 minutes.
Nasir Jones
Jabari Jones
Olu Dara
Pete Rock
Large Professor
MC Serch
Erykah Badu

Before I became a cinephile, I was a hip-hop junkie. I still love the art, but from the genre’s inception up through the late 90s I was a fiend, gobbling up every rap album I could get my hands on. Though I didn’t write album reviews, I still analyzed each one intently. Where lots of popular hip-hop is, has, and always will be driven by the beat, I was far more concerned with the actual lyrics. I was listening closely for wordplay, original metaphors, unique and complex rhyme schemes, and content that offered insight into the artist, their world, and their outlook on that world. I didn’t require artists to have a positive outlook, but I wanted them to say something. If they weren’t saying anything, then I at least wanted them be creative in how they weren’t saying anything. For instance, The Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie, is one of my all-time favorites. He rarely offered anything in the way of social commentary, and was actually quite shallow. However, the way he said things was so amazing he couldn’t be denied.

A little before Biggie made his first album, I heard an album by another artist that had everything I was looking for, and then some. That album was 1994’s Illmatic by Nas. At a time when rappers were putting fourteen or fifteen actual songs plus an intro, an outro, and several skits on an album this one practically feels like an EP with just an intro and nine songs. I like to think of it as the most perfect forty minutes in hip-hop history. I lost track of how many times I’ve listened to it all the way through back during the same year it came out. Twenty-one years later, I can honestly say I still listen to it at least once a month. When I say once a month, I mean I put it on once and listen to it however many times as possible over a period lasting anywhere from a couple days to a couple weeks. The beauty of it is that I’m still finding new things to dissect.

I am not alone in my reverence for Illmatic. My personal favorite album of all time has come to be known as one the greatest in the history of hip-hop. It’s even crossed over and has been recognized as one of the greatest albums of any genre by the likes of Rolling Stone and Spin magazine. Last year, in celebration of its twenty year anniversary a documentary about what went into the making of it was made, Time is Illmatic.

Much like the album it takes part of its name from, Time is Illmatic is not just about Nas an artist, but also about Queensbridge, the housing projects where he grew up. To that end, we hear lots from Nas’ family members, as well from Nas himself. His brother Jabari, aka Jungle, provides us with many of the movie's best moments. It all combines to paint a picture of the harrowing circumstances from which he came.  As it goes on, we hear more from producers who worked on the album and other industry folks who either had a hand in Nas getting a record deal or just expressing their feelings about the album. Eventually, we wind up with the rapper at a press conference at Harvard. I won’t spoil why, but it is a great moment in Hip-Hop history. For a lyrics hound like me, the highlight was the breakdowns we get of about half of the albums tracks by the people who put them together. It wasn’t long, drawn out analysis. It was a few brief anecdotes along with a deeper look at some of the rhymes. Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, a legend in his own right, provides the high point when he delves deep into two lines of the song One Love which he produced.

The movie accomplishes all of this in a brisk seventy-something minutes which helps it keep from overstaying its welcome. This is fitting considering the brevity of the album. However, in film form there is a drawback to a documentary barely long enough to qualify as a feature. For one, the rest of the songs could use a little more shine. More importantly, there is a very big reason why the album is so short that deserves to be mentioned. Without going too in-depth, it has to do with bootleggers. The absence of this info feels like a sizable chunk of the story is missing. There has to be much to say about this particular aspect of the process. An even bigger piece of the story that’s not spoken of is the fact that the album was not a smash hit. If you believe the movie, the album released on April 19, 1994 and by April 20 the landscape of hip-hop was completely changed. The truth is that the album’s success was a slow burn. This is partially due to the bootlegger situation and partially because of the density of the writing which led to very little radio airplay. It offered things to contemplate and verbal wizardry to marvel at in an industry that pushes what makes your ass shake and ignores, or worse suppresses, anything that requires more than a moment to decipher.  The result is that Illmatic was so far under the mainstream radar, Nas would be nomintated for Best New Artist at MTV’s Video Music Awards nearly three years later after his second album came out. Perhaps these are the sentiments of a fan who knew too much about the album going in, but these are things that could have enhanced the documentary, giving those not as familiar with this particular piece of history even more to chew on.

For a fan of the music and of Illmatic, this is still an excellent watch. I’d go so far as to say it’s a much watch for true hip-hop fans and anyone looking to break into the music industry, regardless of genre. There is much revealed here about the man and the album, but also demonstrates how many things have to go right, how many lucky bounces are required to even get to the point of releasing an album on a major label, let alone putting out one that’s considered a classic. The film’s shortcomings are not likely to be picked up on by those coming into this cold. My only reservation about recommending this is that I don’t know how it plays for someone who isn’t into hip-hop. I still would because the story is human enough to carry it.

This post kicks off A Weekend of Nas!

Hip Hop Haters Stay Away!!!


  1. I don't consider myself a casual fan of hip-hop as a few of my favorite albums are The Low End Theory, Stankonia, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Straight Outta Compton, and Saul Williams' The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!. I do love "The World is Yours" from Illmatic but haven't heard the rest. I consider myself more of a rock/classic indie rock fan.

    I used to write album reviews in the 2000s at Epinions where I was sort of the king in the music category in 2009 but I felt it was a hollow accomplishment. Nowadays, I just lost interest in writing music reviews altogether as I don't listen to a lot of music these days anymore except old stuff.

    1. That's a great list of albums. They're among my favorites of all-time, too, except the Saul Williams release. I am very familiar with his written work and I've heard/seen a number of his spoken word performances, and even seen him in a few acting gigs. Sounds like I need to hear this.

      I remember a post or two on your blog where you talked about that period of your life. Very fascinating stuff. I mostly listen to old stuff, too, but I do check out what's current every so often. Usually, that's when I have the kids in the car with me.

  2. It's likely coincidence, but I left hip hop shortly after the death of Tupac. I was big into the West Coast guys, and only ever started hearing about the genius of Nas when I came East for college. My friends who are legit hip hop fans have always told me I need to sit down with Illmatic, but I've never the time.

    It appears I've screwed up.

    My question, start with the doc, or the LP?

    1. Start with the album...several times. I like to experience my art cold, without having it explained to me first so I can develop my own interpretations. I really like the doc, but it essentially explains the album. Besides, the album really is a quick listen. Most songs run right around 4 minutes and there are only 9 of them plus an intro running 2 minutes or so.