It was about twenty years ago that hip hop was undergoing a resurgence in mainstream music and rapper Nas (Nasir Jones) was recording his popular 1994 album Illmatic. It was his debut and still thought by many to be his strongest album overall. This documentary looks at the influences that helped create the album and Nas’s own personal history.
Nas was brought up on the very rough section of the New York City projects called Queensbridge, one of the poorest sections of Queens. Because of the poverty, street gangs, drugs and violence very few made it out of Queensbridge to make something of themselves. Nas was one of the exceptions. Olu Dara a jazz musician was Nas’s father and whatever his faults were he did encourage his son to turn to the arts for an escape. He was obviously an influence on his son but there is also some obvious tension between the two. The affection he has for his mother comes through while talking about her. She worked hard to provide for her kids especially after her husband left. Nas was close to his brother Jungle, who remained in his life even after he left the projects.
A great part of the documentary is when fellow hip hop artists like Q-Tip and Roxanne Shante speak about how Nas broke onto the scene, the noise he made and his influential rhymes. The many producers who worked on the album are interviewed and talk about what it was like working with him and the contributions each made.
Lyrically Nas’s songs spoke of the world he knew – the tough, violent and dark times in the projects. Instead of hating the rough neighbourhood he grew up in Nas acknowledged his love for Queensbridge and how it made him the artist he had become. He did not engage so much in the East Coast versus West Coast rapper battle rather focused on making music that meant something. Songs like “Life’s a Bitch” and “Hope” are still influential two decades later.
We see that he really loves music and is no longer a teenager but a grown man with two children. Nas worked hard in his music career and overcame the adversity of his early life to forge a very successful career.
A really moving section of the film is towards the end of the film is when he returns to the old neighbourhood and speaks of how the album cover for Illmatic and how he was luckier than almost all of his old friends who did not manage to get out. Music was the life line for Nas. Respect is paid to the old neighbourhood.