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Matthew McConaughey misspoke. Turns out time isn’t a flat circle after all.

Artist and director One9 gets a lot right in his documentary on hip hop legend Nas, Time Is Illmatic. Instead of delivering an abridged history of the New York icon’s entire career, he hones in on the making of Nas’ paradigm-shifting 1994 debut Illmatic, capturing in amber the man’s essence, and illustrating his larger significance. It’s the same strategy that worked so well in the narrowly-focused Lincoln and The King’s Speech, and though Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones never led his nation through war, he deserves this long-belated retrospective nonetheless. (Another smart choice by One9: letting the music do the talking when simply nothing else will do, and getting out in less than 80 minutes.)

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There’s a lot of good stuff for fans and neophytes alike in Time Is Illmatic, from the early, bootleg live performances to Nas’ triumphant parade around his old stomping ground in Queensbridge. His brother, Jabari “Jungle” Jones, steals the spotlight and gives the picture its centrepiece, describing in distinctive detail the time Nas’ best friend Ill Will was shot to death. Later, Jabari explains how every member from an old photo of their Queens crew wound up dead or in jail. One9 shows Nas the interview footage, and the famous lyricist is rendered speechless, as if visited by a parallel universe Ghost of Christmas Future. It could have been him too, he so readily admits throughout Time Is Illmatic, as humbling as hagiographies come.

Because of the doco’s slender scope, you won’t find mentions of Nas’ bitter relationship with frenemy Jay Z, nor his ugly divorce from Kelis (which at least stung long enough to have him pose with her famous green wedding dress on the cover of 2012’s Life is Good). But One9 and co-producer Erik Parker’s sacrifices are hard to argue with; that feud and that marriage may have been poisoned apples, but they’re the kind only offered to those at the top of the game. Time Is Illmatic takes Nas back to before he reached that rarefied air, examining track by track the LP that would eventually lift him there.

Nas: Time Is Illmatic plays the RTRFM Gimme Some Truth Festival December 7, 2014.