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NEW YORK — Superstar MC Nas remembers his humble roots in One9‘s Time Is Illmatic, an evocative appreciation of his debut album on the occasion of its 20th anniversary. Though presented concurrently with the inevitable CD reissue (titled Illmatic XX), the doc avoids the prefab feel of many similarly targeted music films, instead offering a strong sense of the neighborhood — New York City’s Queensbridge Houses, the largest public-housing project in the U.S. — that served as both a rallying cry for musicians who grew up there and a constant threat to their lives. While it’s too limited in scope for much of a theatrical life, the film will play well to hip-hop fans on cable.
One of the aspects that keeps Time from projecting an advertorial vibe — its indifference to outside voices — may also leave casual fans wanting a bit more. The director never offers the expected testimonials from fellow musicians and others attesting to Illmatic‘s influence on hip-hop (though Cornel West does pop up briefly). We’re presumed to understand the platinum-selling record’s legacy going in, so instead we dive in with plentiful first-person storytelling from both Nas (born Nasir Jones) and his brother Jabari “Jungle” Jones, with crucial input from their father, jazz musician Olu Dara. (Producers who crafted the record’s beats make quick but welcome appearances as well.)
While the star tends toward earnestness — the “who’d’a thought…?” appreciation of someone not taking stardom for granted — Jungle provides much of the pic’s color, getting many of the film’s laughs (in a post-screening concert, Nas chuckled that Jungle was the film’s star) and providing an eyewitness account of what Time presents as the catalyzing moment of the artist’s career: the shooting death of Willy “Ill Will” Graham, the rapper’s close friend and collaborator in early hip-hop experiments. After that tragedy, which happened in their building’s courtyard, Nas threw himself into the creative burst that quickly drew attention from outside Queensbridge.
The filmmakers focus more on storytelling — recounting rivalries between Queens rappers and the South Bronx’s Boogie Down Productions; early support from Roxanne Shante and MC Serch; the rapper’s discovery by and quick signing to Columbia Records — than on making the most of the period’s music. This is not one of those rock docs that makes viewers move in their seats, and it often cuts away from its best performance footage before we’re ready to leave. It’s busy saving space for present-day renditions of songs made famous on Illmatic.
These segments afford little examinations of individual songs — as when Q-Tip cites a couplet from “One Love” that eloquently describes how the mass incarceration of young black men destroys families and communities. But they aren’t as musically thrilling as the vintage footage.
The doc barely talks about how the record was received and what it led to — a career full of multiplatinum records and sold-out arenas — but it wraps up with some time at Harvard, where a new Nasir Jones Fellowship will promote hip-hop scholarship. The Ivy League is an odd place for the film to go in its one request for outside legitimization of the artist’s work. But for a rapper who once lamented that his people are in “projects or jail, never Harvard or Yale,” perhaps it’s appropriate.
Production: Illa Films
Screenwriter: Erik Parker
Producers: Anthony Saleh, One9, Erik Parker
Director of photography: Frank Larson
Editors: David Zieff, One9, John Kanellids
Music: B. Satz
Sales: Josh Braun, Submarine
Not rated, 74 minutes
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