Monday, September 29, 2014

Nas: the Doc is Illmatic

Olu Dara has been celebrated for his sideman recordings with avant-garde jazz artists, like David Murray, and his own sessions that are deeply steeped in the blues. Yet, far more people have heard him work on Nas’s “Life’s a Bitch.” He had the inside track to that gig. He happens to be the rapper’s father. Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones will take one bow after another in One9’s shamelessly celebratory Nas: Time is Illmatic (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

If you were going to write a generic rapper creation myth, it might go something like this: The sensitive son of a politically conscious but largely absent father grows up in a hostile big city environment, largely keeping on the straight and narrow, thanks to his strong mother. Yet, just as the young man is about to make it big, his close friend and musical collaborator falls prey to the urban pathologies they hoped to escape. Nevertheless, the grieving friend’s destiny would not be denied.

That is pretty much the Nas story in a nutshell. Since that is what happened, One9 is stuck with the general arc, but a good documentarian’s challenge is to delve beneath the surface to find the surprising and idiosyncratic things that make their subjects tick. Unfortunately, One9 and writer Erik Parker are content to print the legend, chronicling a publicist approved narrative that might as well be cribbed from Even for a Nas fan, the results are rather boring to watch.

Yes, Nas’s Illmatic album was a hip-hop watershed. We know that because scores of talking heads tell us so, but they never really explain it. Some vaguely suggest he broke new ground in his politicized depiction of inner city life, yet we hear plenty of rhymes similarly addressing issues of race and class from his early 1980s contemporaries. Frankly, there is not a lot of analysis in Time—just a general assumption everyone is already on the same side of the mountain.

Still, Time could be an efficiently inebriating drinking game. Just take one sip for every time he shakes hands, fist bumps, or high fives someone from the old neighborhood. While these scenes are obviously meant to emphasis Nas’s close connection to Queensbridge, we just so get it after the first fifteen or twenty times.

Even viewers who are not hip-hop listeners can appreciate a documentary about the music if it is well done. Michael Rapaport’s Beats, Rhymes, and Life is a perfect example, in large measure because founding A Tribe Called Quest member Q-Tip has a lot to say about music and it usually quite interesting (unfortunately his appearance in Time is rather perfunctory). Time simply lacks the equivalent insights. Shallow and fannish, Nas: Time is Illmatic should have been a disposable cable special, but it opens this Wednesday (10/1) in New York at the AMC Empire.