Nas: Time Is Illmatic is a hagiographic history of a 20-year-old album that the New York rapper born Nasir Jones recorded at age 19. While also being shown in multiplexes, the film is serving as Nas' opening act on a tour that stopped last week at the Keswick Theatre, with a screening setting up the performance of the album in its entirety.
That might lead you to expect that the music doc, by the first-time director known only as One9, would be a by-the-numbers promotional vehicle existing only to highlight its subject's greatness.
But Time Is Illmatic doesn't settle for that. Sure, it treats Illmatic - Nas' 1994 album about growing up in the Queensbridge Housing Projects amid the rising crack epidemic of the late 1980s - as a sacred text.
That's not so much of a stretch. Illmatic is regarded by many as the greatest rap album of all time, a precocious achievement with which the son of jazz-blues trumpeter/guitarist Olu Dara raised the bar for hip-hop by spinning out carefully observed stories, startling in their detail and philosophy.
Kendrick Lamar, Erykah Badu, Alicia Keys, and Questlove are among the luminaries who testify to the album's eminence. Cornel West waxes eloquent in delineating the broader social-historical conditions in which it was produced.
Rather than explore the breadth of Nas' career, One9 and writer Erik Parker wisely focus the tightly disciplined, 75-minute film on Nas' life leading up to and including Illmatic. We learn the effect of the divorce of Dara, a talented, inspirational, and largely absent father, and Nas' late mother, Ann Jones, on the rapper and his brother, Jabari "Jungle" Jones, as well as the details of the senseless shooting death of Nas' teenage hip-hop partner and best friend, Will "Ill Will" Graham.
Time Is Illmatic does a terrific job of weaving hip-hop history into a highly personal story. The fierce musical rivalry between rappers in Queens and the Bronx is brought to vivid life, and credit is given to such players as pioneering female rapper Roxanne Shante; Nas remembers being intimidated by her because "she's older than us, and taller than us."
Nas' father and brother are compelling presences, but the rapper himself makes the movie go. He's open, humble, and articulate about the circumstances that led to his enduring masterpiece ("ill" being urban-street synonymous with cool, tight, phat). And he examines the making of intricately rhymed, standout tracks like "The World Is Yours" and "One Love," which are revisited with their individual producers. (DJ Premier, Q-Tip, L.E.S., Large Professor, and Pete Rock worked on the album in a seamless group effort, which had a negative impact on hip-hop going forward, as production-by-committee became the industry standard.)
Toward the end of Time Is Illmatic, Nas and his brother look at a group photo taken with their homeboys on the Illmatic album sleeve. Jungle counts up how many of their old friends are either dead or have spent much of the interim incarcerated.
The depressing arithmetic gives Nas pause. "The [stuff] is real, it's the projects," he says. "If it wasn't for music, maybe I wouldn't even have been in that picture."
Nas: Time Is Illmatic 1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by One9. With Nas, Olu Dara, Jabari "Jungle" Jones, Cornel West, Q-Tip. Distributed by Tribeca Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 14 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (profanity, references to sex, drugs, violence).
Playing at: AMC Loews Cherry Hill 24.