Nas Celebrates 20 Years of 'Illmatic' at Toronto Concert & Documentary Screening

Nas performs in 2014
Frazer Harrison/WireImage

Nas performs onstage at the Beats Music Launch Party at Belasco Theatre on January 25, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. 

Nas performed all of his breakthrough album after a screening of 'Nas: Time Is Illmatic.'

Those who filled Toronto's Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Wednesday night to watch Nas' documentary and witness the rapper perform Illmatic from front to back left the concert with new insight into the hip-hop star and his lyrics. Quite frankly, Nas: Time Is Illmatic changes the way you listen to it -- and view him.

His poetry attacks, flow, and ability to tell a story layered with sociological insights are evident, but the documentary -- covering his childhood, record signing and his landmark 1994 studio debut -- shows the integrity and focus he had, and how easy it would’ve been not to have either.

Nasir Jones grew up in the crime-ridden Queensbridge Housing Projects of New York to divorced but solid parents, dropped out of school in the 9th grade, and lost his best friend to murder. Most of his peers did time, got life or are dead. Nas? He sold 25 million albums and had six No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200.

As he says at the very start of the doc, “Who’da thunk it?”

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Well, the people who knew him did: people like his brother, Jabari; his dad, musician Olu Dara; and Mrs Braconi, his 2nd grade teacher who asked him to draw his face and realized “he could express his feelings” through his art. But the apathetic school system prompted Nas to quit school -- “Destined to live the dream for all my peeps who never made it,” as the line goes in “Life’s A Bitch.”

After the end credits of the film rolled to the tune of “The World Is Yours,” the screen rose and intro “The Genesis” played. A video counted back the years: 2013, 2012…1994. The audience leapt out of the plush seats, cell phone cameras out. Many rushed the stage. Joined only by a DJ, Nas, dressed for the chilly Toronto weather in a sweater and toque, launched right into “N.Y. State of Mind.”

“Thank you for coming out here tonight,” he said. “Twenty years in the making. Did you enjoy the documentary?”

In the film, Nas said the words and philosophies of Illmatic are "still me," and as he performed each cut -- "Life’s A Bitch,” “The World Is Yours" -- it sure seemed that way. “This crazy fucked up world is yours. What do you want to do with it?” he spat with such conviction it made you think twice. “Toronto, the world is yours.”

As he continued through Illmatic -- the crowd rapping along to the wordy poetry as easily as giving out their home address -- it became clear that this album really does stand the test of time. The beats are strong and forceful, unlike the colorful, rich, 808 “good time” hip-hop style that was dominating when he got his start. 

At “One Love,” he mentioned Time Is Illmatic again. “This tells a story about basically teenagers living in a crazy world,” he said. The lyrics, according to the documentary, were “about keeping people’s heads up in locked up situations,” inspired by letters he had been writing back and forth to friends in jail.

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The evening with Nas wasn’t entirely serious. He smoked a joint from an audience member, used a fan’s cell to snap a photo, praised t-shirts, and signed lots and lots of autographs.

When he finished performing Illmatic, he said, “I can already tell that I can’t leave here without doing something else.” With that he powered into “Hate Me Now" followed by “Made You Look." The crowd went nuts.

“Twenty years from now, we’ll be back here,” Nas concluded after the 45-minute concert. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Illmatic XX, a remastered 20th anniversary special edition, has just been released and the film, directed by One9, is now in 40 theaters, available on demand and online.


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