Sundance Review: Something from Nothing

Even if you have no interest in rap or hip-hop, Ice-T’s documentary Something from Nothing may just give you a new-found respect for the medium. If you're in the camp that thinks rap is nothing but noise and loud beats, this may be the movie that shows you the intricacies of rap that you didn’t know existed.

Ice-T travels from New York to Los Angeles talking to dozens of rappers. This isn’t a movie that glorifies their lifestyles or their fortunes they’ve made in show business, this is simply a movie about the craft. We get to see rappers like Q-Tip, Mos Def, Rakim, and Eminem give impromptu freestyles. Grandmaster Caz takes 20 minutes and composes a rap called "The Art of Rap," and it's amazing to see what these men and women can do with words. Another item that may impress people is the way the rhymes sound without a beat in the background. Every time Ice-T visits a new rapper he asks them to give him their favorite lines of lyrics or to make something up on the spot, sans music or a catchy beat. What you’re left with is the pure lyrics, a kind of verbal poetry delivered with the stunning precision.

The premise is simple enough. Ice-T merely wants to shine a light on the inner workings of rap. He shows how rhymes are created and we soon learn that the beat, while important, is secondary to the lyrics. The lyrics are everything and the rappers he interviews discuss their process of how they create them. No two rappers are exactly the same. Some have to have it completely quiet to compose their song or as Snoop Dogg puts it, “I need to smoke a lot of weed, and have a couple girls there because I like looking at them.” Different styles soon emerge as rapper after rapper freestyles in front of the camera, each of them with a distinct way of using their voice, inflections, and lyrics. They discuss their inspirations, how they got into rap in the first place, and what goes through their heads when they’re composing new stuff.

Before the movie started Ice-T was introduced and admitted that when the movie was first submitted to Sundance that it was a three-hour cut. Before that it was four hours, and I got the impression that Ice-T wanted to keep it as long as possible. There’s just so much to cover, and I had no idea how involved the craft of rap and writing lyrics was. Like many casual rap fans, I’ve become a bit desensitized to how complicated rap lyrics can be. I find myself getting lost in the beat, and even Ice-T admits that today’s rap is diluted. It’s become pop music. He wanted to use this documentary to tell the story of true rap artists, the musicians that defined and invented a genre of music. In that he succeeds.

I can tell you that the mostly white, mostly over-fifty crowd I saw the movie with probably weren’t hardcore rap fans. Yet everyone in the audience seemed transfixed by the way the lyrics were created and the amount of talent that went into performing them. It’s carefully crafted to illuminate the gift that these artists have. Something from Nothing is an eye-opening documentary for anyone, whether they are rap fans or not.

Grade: A-