Film Review: ‘Time Is Illmatic’


Rolling off New York’s F line, 21st Street you find yourself in the maltreated bosom of North America’s largest public housing development. Paved in the warren of great geometric brickwork, residents of Queensbridge lived in cost efficient Y-shaped complexes. It was said the area’s abnormal design was the cheapest solution to permitting its inhabitants enough access to sunlight. And yet, in the bridge’s shadows was the place where the Dream Team pushed, where only ‘Shorty Doo-wop’ stayed out all night, where the D’s on the roof dwell and where pulling triggers brought fame to your name. Furthermore, the Projects has also been deemed one the most common geographical location to be eulogised in song.

From Roxanne Shante and Marley Marl to MC Shan and Craig G, almost everyone to spit influence to hip-hop’s next-gen, has represented their home in Queensbridge, Queens. But no one before or since owes their career so severely to this pocketed housing area as much as Nas. Released on the 20th anniversary of Nas’ rhapsodically acclaimed debut, Illmatic, director One9 reflects on the origins of a record that stemmed from anger and flourished from the tragic cesspool of the Bridge’s criminal underworld. Talking heads, appropriated family snaps and semi-humbled musings make up One9’s collaborative homage to Nasir Jones, the man who in 1994 sprayed holes in the head of hip-hop, changing the game forever. As a portrait of Nas is painted with the doting of palettes, One9 opts for celebration over cultural discourse.

It proves a minor shortcoming when you allow yourself to revel in the raw energy of Time Is Illmatic’s (2014) predictably perfect soundtrack. One9’s amorous directorial style may be a little hackneyed, but his debut release acts as an exemplary Easter egg for the extensive Illmatic anniversary programme. Nuggets of Queensbridge’s history voiced over archival footage of a young Nas with the likes of MC Serch and T-Ray, provide the brief yet much required background info. Studies of the Bridge from past to present are reported beautifully by Cornel West, one of the most important philosophical thinkers of our time. Beyond that, it’s the Nas show. Hip-hop contemporaries weigh in their ovations – Busta Rhymes, Swizz Beats, Q-Tip, Alicia Keys, Pete Rock – however these all tread on similar grounds with hardly any insight other than infinite praise. One9’s technique is tidy, compact and succinct. It’s a thumbnail or a footer rather than a thesis, the crisp, inoffensive accolade Illmatic deserves. Analysis is light, but Nas’ lyrics are as dark and bullish as they were twenty years ago.

This review of Time is Illmatic was originally published on 9 October 2014 as part of our London Film Festival coverage.

Tom Watson