The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Nas: Time Is Illmatic

If you're making a list of the most important rap albums of all time, Nas' Illmatic is definitely on that list. The album hit like a bombshell when it dropped in April of 1994, putting Nas on the map and representing a fresh, unfiltered lyrical style that spoke to the realities of inner city life. Twenty years later, its release is still a watershed moment in music history. The documentary Nas: Time Is Illmatic looks at the making of this groundbreaking work.

Directed by noted multimedia artist One9, the film charts Nasir Jones' life growing up in the Queensbridge projects. It was not an easy time. His jazz musician father split from his mother. Friends got involved in drug dealing and crime. One especially close friend was murdered. Through it all, Nas clung to beats and rhymes – the very things, he says, that saved him from going down the wrong path. After being discovered and making an impact in the local music scene, he was signed to a major record label and began recording his debut, Illmatic. The inspiration for the songs was everything he saw going on around him. His lyrics had a raw, political feel to them, often mixing despair and hope in equal measure. Nas was only twenty, but displaying wisdom beyond his years.

Nas: Time Is Illmatic features the rapper (and those close to him) telling personal anecdotes that reflect on the creation of his album. We hear how individual tracks were conceived and recorded. The meanings of the songs are analyzed by interview participants. Famous admirers like Pharrell Williams and Alicia Keys testify to Illmatic's influence. All of these things add up to an engaging document of how – and, more importantly, why - this particular album had such an impact. Rap in the late '80s and early '90s tended to be “party music,” with raunchy acts like 2 Live Crew or fun artists like MC Hammer and Kid N Play dominating the scene. Nas was in the wave of rappers who brought sociopolitical commentary to the music, showing that it could speak on deeper, more substantive issues.

Whether you like rap music or loathe it, the story here is notable. Nas: Time Is Illmatic doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it's a sturdy piece of documentary filmmaking with immense cultural relevance. Lots of docs focus on artists. This one focuses on a specific piece of art, enriching your understanding and appreciation of it in the process. The legacy of Illmatic will go on.

( out of four)

Note: Nas: Time Is Illmatic opens in limited theatrical release on October 1 and will be available on demand October 3.

Nas: Time Is Illmatic is unrated, but contains adult language and subject matter. The running time is 1 hour and 15 minutes.

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