Photo by Danny Clinch/Sony Legacy Nas in 1994.
One rhyme in particular crystallizes the genius of Nas' 1994 classic, Illmatic. It comes in the song "One Love," which takes the form of a letter to a friend in prison: "Congratulations, you know you got a son," Nas raps. "I heard he looks like ya, why don't your lady write ya?"
Did you get that? In nineteen words, Nas swings from the perspective-upending pride of fatherhood -- a new human who is part you! -- to the heartache of separation, loneliness, disloyalty. He whispers the knife of betrayal into our gut with a simple question: "Why don't your lady write ya?" Nas paints not just a man in prison, yearning for the outside, but a whole web of relationships decaying in his absence.
Lyrical feats like these helped Illmatic win a perfect five-mic score from The Source in '94 and a perfect ten from Pitchfork when it was reissued last year, making it one of the most acclaimed of all hip-hop albums. (It does have a few flaws.) But Illmatic's towering reputation challenges anyone seeking to comment on it further: After twenty years, plus the 2001 sequel (Stillmatic), the reissue of the original, the 33⅓ book, and the countless essays, hagiographic and otherwise, what could possibly be left to say?
Wisely, then, Nas: Time Is Illmatic leans toward biography. The film traces the life of Nas from his childhood in the notorious Queensbridge housing projects up through the making and release of Illmatic. Director One9 skips the bulk of Nas' rap career -- which, suffice it to say, hasn't been as consistent as his debut -- to find Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones a 41-year-old elder statesman.
He's widely respected, even by onetime rivals like Jay Z, yet his highest-profile concerts still feature songs he wrote as a teenager. This isn't a critical portrait by any means. But the film understands that the most interesting thing about Nas is how he once converted twenty years of living into 40 minutes of art that transcends its genre, its era, even its medium.
Time Is Illmatic goes remarkably deep, taking us all the way back to the Mississippi childhood of Nas' father, jazz trumpeter Olu Dara Jones. The elder Jones found himself discharged from the Navy in New York, where he met a woman; soon, she'd given birth to two boys, Nasir and his younger brother, Jabari. While Olu Dara went on tour, becoming a celebrated figure in avant-garde jazz, Fannie Jones moved her boys into the largest public housing project in the world.
They lived a better life than many neighbors did, with regular meals, books and musical instruments. But as crack and violence consumed the neighborhood (we get plenty of historical context in these 74 minutes), Olu Dara found himself shocked by the harshness of his sons' childhood. "I went to enroll them in school -- it was like enrolling them in hell," he remembers.
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