Lyrical feats like these helped Illmatic win a perfect five-mic score from The Source in '94 and a perfect ten from Pitchfork when it was reissued last year, making it one of the most acclaimed of all hip-hop albums. (It does have a few flaws.) But Illmatic's towering reputation challenges anyone seeking to comment on it further: After 20 years, plus the 2001 sequel (Stillmatic), the reissue of the original, the 33⅓ book, and the countless essays, hagiographic and otherwise, what could possibly be left to say?
Wisely, then, Nas: Time Is Illmatic leans toward biography. The film traces the life of Nas from his childhood in the notorious Queensbridge housing projects up through the making and release of Illmatic. Director One9 skips the bulk of Nas' rap career -- which, suffice it to say, hasn't been as consistent as his debut -- to find Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones a 41-year-old elder statesman.
He's widely respected, even by onetime rivals like Jay Z, yet his highest-profile concerts still feature songs he wrote as a teenager. This isn't a critical portrait by any means. But the film understands that the most interesting thing about Nas is how he once converted 20 years of living into 40 minutes of art that transcends its genre, its era, even its medium.
See also: Hip-Hop: Five Most Annoying Buzzwords