Thursday 23 October 2014

Jungle survivor: "Nas: Time is Illmatic"

Nas: Time is Illmatic plays like the US equivalent of one of those upmarket Friday night music-biz docs on BBC4: a track-by-track retrospective of a defining album, topped and tailed by some analysis of where its subject came from and whereabouts they were headed. Its subject is one Nasir "Nas" Jones, the Brooklyn-born rapper who occupies an intriguing place in the contemporary American music scene, being the son of noted jazz musician Olu Dara; the album, his 1994 debut "Illmatic", positioned here as a bridge between the laid-back hip-hop immortalised by the movie Wild Style a decade before it and the superstar MCs who found more forceful ways to break through in Nas's wake. Before "Illmatic", the film's thesis goes, there was Run DMC, KRS-One and De La Soul, representing good times and collectivity; afterwards, Tupac and Biggie, Jay-Z and Eminem, and - sorry, everyone - Kanye, tragic figures or lone survivors, attempting something more self-involved, possibly neurotic.

It doubtless helped that the album dropped in that post-Do the Right Thing/Boyz N The Hood moment when corporate America's eyes and ears had been newly opened to black stories, yet the film recognises "Illmatic" as a deeply personal statement, worthy of closer textual analysis. For all the adolescent desire to shock and awe flaunted in its lyrics, "Illmatic" is here revealed to contain a wealth of sincerely felt stories - first-hand observations of drug dealers and working girls, unhappy families and a dozen other institutional failures, a generation of squandered promise. The title, indeed, enshrined Nas's friend and collaborator "Ill Will" Graham, shot dead in a housing project squabble over a girl; and even the LP's one ostensibly mellow party anthem went out under the singalonga title "Life's a Bitch". Somewhere in there, you can hear an entire genre getting tougher, punchier, battle-hardened.

Despite its slender 74-minute running time, Time is Illmatic squeezes in a good deal of varied interview and archive footage that positions Nas within a lineage and context: among other virtues, it lets us see exactly where he was coming from. (There's some very touching footage of the rapper walking the Crown Heights projects that he once called home, interacting - fondly - with the locals.) In doing so, what could have merely been a lazy, label-engineered pendant to some 20th anniversary repackaging of the original CD or a series of comeback concerts instead extends its reach into other fields of American history and culture: the interviewees include Cornel West as well as Pharrell, Alicia Keys and Kendrick Lamar. It probably still won't convert my dad to rap, but it takes both the music, and the struggle behind it, as seriously as it always demanded to be.

Nas: Time is Illmatic opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

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