The people say it’s an album with no filler or fat, just bars. Street poetry over beats, almost like prayers and commandments, that has been called a transformative moment in Hip-Hop. And the 2014 documentary Time Is Illmatic gives insight, scope and context to that moment.
Young Nasir Jones was a boy whose people were survivors by way of Natchez, Mississippi. Born of a lineage of pimps, hoes, musicians and teachers and raised in project houses meant to explode from the inside, buried like diamonds under pressure. A ghetto gem, like a crack rock hidden in the book of the dead.
I was seven years old when "Nasty Nas" dropped his freshman album Illmatic in 1994. I grew up to “If I Ruled the World” and “I Can,” so his legend was not new to me. Today we pour libations, and give flowers to a living legend and a creative work that has stood the test of time. We give roses, the kind that grow from concrete for a man whose influence spans decades. Illmatic is an album that legends uphold as legendary. Nas is an artist who is equal parts poet, rapper, lyricist and rap god. If you know better, you know that each one of those are different categories and if an artist is to be all of the above then they are indeed the ultimate.
His first album set the tone with a wisdom and poetic prowess that made his premiere project feel like he had been here before; like he was just waiting for the world to catch up. One of those old souls that came from a long line of artists positioned to make their mark on the world.
“Whose World Is This?” He asks.
"The World Is Yours" repeats like a mantra in the back of my mind on a loop, as I remember the life of young Black men such as Daunte Wright killed by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota at the same age Nas became known to the world. And the life of Willie Graham aka Ill Will, Nas’s childhood best friend who lost his life in their hometown of Queensbridge, New York to community violence. I consider what place the world has for a young black male prodigy, and how many of our suns don’t get a chance to see the light of day, to grow and become what Nas became: A gift to the culture. A man imperfect but a man nonetheless.
The documentary Time Is Illmatic takes a deep dive into a pivotal piece of Hip-Hop history and into Queensbridge; the project complex that made its mark in the shadow of Hip-Hop's birthplace, the South Bronx. From the "Bridge Wars" between MC Shan's Juice Crew and KRS-1's Boogie Down Productions, a spark was lit for a generation of Q.B. rhymers to prove that BDP's diss ("Queens keeps on fakin' it!) would never hold weight. Yet in the midst of the rivalry, no one knew a young prince from Queensbridge was coming for the crown.
A crown that still sits secure decades later.
I would be remiss if I didn’t give an honor to the women in his life that helped position him. The documentary uplifts Nas’s mother like a patron saint. A woman truly missed, for the love and laughter she offered, and for the safe haven she created in her home even in the ghetto. A mother who provided many times for three men, which included her sons and husband. A woman who didn’t curse, who was a class act, a back bone and a soft place to land.
And Queensbridges rap Queen Roxanne Shante has an influence in the community that predates Nas. A neighborhood icon who released her first record "Roxanne's Revenge" when she was only 14 years old, igniting the "Roxanne Wars" of the mid-80s. She became known for battle rap and holding her own against popular male rappers in the neighborhood. As a sister figure, she pushed Nas with her example, and told him to get his rhymes together next time she saw him or she would "fuck him up."
If that’s not motivation to step your bars up, I don’t know what is.
And the doc celebrates the men in his life. His guardian angel Ill Will, his brother and backbone Jabari “Jungle” Jones and his father Olu Dara Jones were equal parts supportive and influential. Nas holds his fathers first name as his middle name. Olu Dara meaning "God is good" to which Black folks often reply “All the time.” You have to be careful what you name your children, but God has indeed been good to Nasir Olu Dara Jones. Nas’s father the jazz musician exposed him to instruments and Black literature which is probably why much of his lyrics feel like prose and not just raps. It was also his father that told his sons they could quit formal education if it did not serve them. If it didn’t nurture the souls of Black boys. He was a young man who made a decision to leave, and though no one understood at the time, he made his own way.
Twelve albums, 27 summers and two children later, the poetry is still deep and time is still Illmatic. Happy anniversary to a pillar of Hip-Hop.