Friday, September 26, 2014
Nas' 'TIME IS ILLMATIC' is a Riveting Doc That Helps Reconnect America with Hip-Hop
I have what you may call a complicated relationship with hip-hop. While I can't claim to be exactly in tuned with the genre these days -- not the superficial and diluted sound which consumes too many popular songs today. But I love it for what it was, what it could be. I love it for its poetry, its philosophies, its storytelling. That moment when it brings you closer to the artist -- his struggles, his fears, his pain, his joy. That moment it transports you.
I experienced that again when I saw NAS: TIME IS ILLMATIC. Just when I got tired of sifting through empty commercial hip-hop, this documentary chronicling rapper Nasir Jones' (better known simply as Nas) journey to his iconic 20-year-old album, Illmatic, is exactly what is needed right now -- a reminder of what hip-hop is all about. The film follows the artist's life from an 8th grade dropout (or 9th grade - he doesn't seem sure of the exact year in the film) to a driven young poet with only his dreams and scribbled rhymes to sustain him. While the crux of the film is lifted from Nas' beginnings in Queensbridge, known as the largest housing projects in the country, the rapper - who provides the bulk of the narration -- is quick to say that he and his brother "Jungle" Jabari wanted for nothing. In fact, at one point in the film he mentions that his family home, led by his late mother, was often filled with kids in the neighborhood who didn't want to miss out on his mom's good cooking.
There is a warmness in Nas' voice as he reflects on this time in his life, but there's also a sorrow that seeps through as he thinks back to his best friend "Ill" Will Graham who was shot and killed right in front of the artist's stoop, or how too many of his childhood peers are either in jail, strung out or dead -- those who for various reasons couldn't escape their surroundings.
These feelings of being trapped, ignored and frustrated are exactly what provided the heartbeat of Illmatic, Nas' debut album which catapulted him from a dreamer to a success story. Director and co-producer (with writer Erik Parker) One9 gives audiences a chance to not only learn more about Nas but to know more about where great music -- of any genre -- often comes from: literature (Nas read everything from Asian philosophers to Harlem Renaissance author James Baldwin), relationships (both Jabari and Nas' father musician Olu Dara provide narrations in the film), and most of all the mental and political landscape of a young black man living in an America that always seemed to be just outside of his reach. For many artists, hip-hop was a way to break out of their environment. But for Nas, "Illmatic" was a way to bring America in.
What's also so great about NAS: TIME IS ILLMATIC is that it offers fans like myself a trip down memory lane -- back when artists like Roxanne Shante, KRS-One, Biz Markie, Q-Tip and Erykah Badu (who are featured in the film) ruled the charts, back when hip-hop was dominated by hits like the 1987 hit "The Bridge is Over. This was a time when it seemed like every song was about something -- whether it was about the artist, how they viewed the world around them (or the other way around). Hip-hop offered a voice to those who were otherwise unheard.
As reaffirmed in this documentary, every great song -- including each "Illmatic" track -- is really an amalgam of past musical influences like Dara's jazz beats and beatboxing and the artist's singular message that gives birth to a brand new sound. Just as "Illmatic" brought people from all across the globe a little closer to Queensbridge, NAS: TIME IS ILLMATIC draws audiences closer to hip-hop.
Rating: A- (**** out of *****)
NAS: TIME IS ILLMATIC will release in New York City and Los Angeles on October 1st, and On Demand on October 3rd. For more information on Nas' tour dates, which correspond with the release of the film, click here.