Famous hip-hop album inspires film

Documentaries often paint a remarkably heavy-handed picture of their subjects — an overflow of positive information is shown on the screen and little negative information is offered. “Nas: Time is Illmatic” falls into this trap, though understandably so. Nas’ “Illmatic” is readily agreed upon as being one of the greatest rap albums of all time, and this documentary concerning the process of its creation is certainly worthy of praise.

The album itself is a nearly perfect work. “Illmatic” discusses the tribulations of growing up in the Queensbridge projects during the ’80s and ’90s. The film acts as a companion, delving into the ideas and messages contained in some of the album’s most well-known tracks.

On “NY State of Mind,” the record’s opening song, Nas describes what living in an inner city is like at night. As his narration flows into the lyrics of the song, the documentary uses stock footage depicting police raids and arrests. The track’s aggressive tone complements the video perfectly.

The song “One Love” is meant as a tribute to all those imprisoned, an open letter expressing and sympathizing with their woes. Celebrated rapper Q-Tip, who produced the track, analyzes the song in the documentary. In particular, he focuses on specific lines that concern the lack of correspondence between an inmate and his significant other. As cruel and unfair the rapper thinks the prison system is, Q-Tip says one of the most devastating effects is its ability to destroy relationships. Nas emphasizes the devastating qualities imprisonment caused many of his friends with the lines: “Plus congratulations you know you got a son/I heard he looks like you, why don’t your lady write you?”

The film also acts as an informative lesson on the crack epidemic, as well as the unforgiving projects themselves. As director One9 explains, the suburbs allowed whites to leave the city and remain close in homogenous communities. With cities now less desirable than the suburbs, addiction or dealing of crack consumed many left behind in urban neighborhoods. The profit gained through dealing drugs was undeniable, though its consequences were obvious as well — gang violence, arrest and the likelihood of being trapped in the projects.

Of course, the film remains, for the most part, focused on the upbringing and maturity of Nas. His love and bond with his neighbor “Ill Will” Graham caused him to pursue music, and Graham’s untimely death pushed Nas to make even angrier rap songs.

To those in Queensbridge, Nas is a hero. Loved for bringing attention to the neighborhood, ending a rap battle in the Bronx and uniting many opposing gang members in Queens, he is recognized by all and treated like a close friend or family member.

Through “Nas: Time is Illmatic,” the impact of Nas’ classic album is fully recognized, 20 years after its release. Through the comparisons between the album’s modern rap and older tracks and a brief history lesson, One9 has made a proper memorial to one of the most important albums of all time.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Oct. 1 print edition. Email Ethan Sapienza at [email protected].