Opening with chaotic images of what a voiceover describes as “New York at night”, Time Is Illmatic wastes no time in introducing the conflict between police and the drug world in the last 1980s in New York. After using the phrase “crazy cops”, Nas’ brother Jungle emphasises that “they had to be crazy running after someone in that neighbourhood at night” and the absolute depth of the tension that permeates the documentary is brought to the surface. One9 wastes no time in making points and there is little filler throughout the 75 minute film. The documentary moves beyond being about a single album or even Nas as an artist – Time Is Illmatic is a documentary that dissects the environment where this music emerged; through bleak moments throughout the projects, the constant threat of violence that punctuated the lives within, the intricate and complex culture that concurrently ran alongside this, and the implications the success of Illmatic created. That is to say, the documentary rests a lot less on Nas as a musician and significantly more on what it meant to be African American in New York in the 1980s, as well as presenting what has and hasn’t changed today.
Nas defends not going to high school outlining the sense of hopelessness that defined his experience in the traditional education system as he espouses a recurring idea “if they not teaching me nothing why go? – the whole school system was just holding black men back”. On the whole, Time is Illmatic is concerned with the broad sphere with Nas as a point of reference. While Nas’ discovery of music is presented as his salvation, One9 allows the documentary to linger and explore the alternate roads – or the lack thereof – that could have allowed a similar ‘way out’ of the projects. He drives the documentary away from a narrative of Nas’ life and into an analysis of those who weren’t as fortunate with a key message: Nas was talented, but he was simultaneously extremely lucky; as the film shows, there was no shortage of immense talent in Nas’ circle at Queensbridge. In particular is the story of William “Ill Will” Graham which is told with a sense of delicacy, respect and tragedy that prompts the audience to reposition themselves – they aren’t watching a film about Nas, but the generation he became the figurehead of.
Deeply steeped in the history of hip-hop, One9 deploys a solid amount of archival footage – particularly of Roxanne Shanté and Biz Markie, whose influence on Nas is emphasised throughout the early stages of the film. The focus on the Bridge Wars as a key inspiration to Nas’ entry into the world of hip-hop provides a contextual frame that promulgates the socio-political element of the film. As various contemporaries of Marley Marl, MC Shan, KRS-One and the Juice Crew discuss the Bridge Wars, the pseudo-aggression between the groups is presented as instrumental in creating the New York brand of hip-hop that Nas emerges into. One9 doesn’t tell a story of Nas growing up in great detail, instead saving the detail of the context which punctuates it.
One of the strange parts of Time Is Illmatic that differentiates it from most music documentaries is that its subject is still alive. Nas is in the documentary, talking about his own career and life, yet it never comes of as arrogant – in fact, it moves in the opposite direction. Nas presents himself as representative of something greater than himself, stating that he feels “like a voice for those that passed on… because this was life”. To him, his survival and success is the inverse of the tragedy and death that took his friends ”If it wasn’t for music you would’ve told that same story about that kid on the bench in that picture” he continues, in perhaps the films most poignant scene ”…or maybe he wouldn’t have even been in that picture”. Nas is constantly reverent of “those that died for us to be here” and with each mention of those who are no longer around the degree to which the documentary is about more than Nas is increasingly clear – and for this One9 has made something far more memorable and far more unique than a simple documentary.
Time Is Illmatic’s most telling scene is in Nas’ return to the Queensbridge projects. “I never thought I’d be having this day to look back on where I come from”, Nas announces as he navigates his childhood home, “I was just an extension of that”. As he moves throughout the projects, One9 portrays Nas speaking to old friends from his youth, being recognised by others he doesn’t know, and eventually settles – alongside the camera – on a young boy who reveals his name is also “Nasir”. The rappers response to the child is short but one of the most powerful “we are kings, know that for the rest of your life”.
By the time the first major track off Illmatic – ‘Life’s a Bitch’ – is discussed, the breadth of the context that birthed it has been carefully and strenuously established, and the inclusion of Nas’ live performance of the song is equally tinged with a stark sense of pain and loss as it is with triumph and catharsis. The release of Illmatic is the the endpoint of the documentary. It doesn’t trace Nas into the present, but situates itself within a particular context beginning with the chaos, fear and tension that initailly defined it and ending with the release of a record that was built upon it. Life is Illmatic is a stark portrayal of life in the projects, the rich culture it birthed, the violence and tragedy it created, and the music that emerged. Within 75 minutes, the depth and detail with which One9 articulates the documentary – which at times feels more like a visual essay – cements it as one of the most important films on both Nas and the broader context that enveloped him.