jeen-yuhs shows us a bruised Kanye West
Shot over 20 years, the Netflix documentary about the rapper’s life is a stunning portrayal of genius and ego's seductive power.
As one of the most discussed and debated artists of our generation, Kanye West’s contributions to hip-hop are routinely contrasted with his erratic public persona; the events of the past four weeks prove that. He’s also considered the archetypal ego-driven artist — his work, who he is and how he carries himself, are practically inseparable. But what a new, three part documentary titled jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy provides us with is the context as to how that came to be, picking at the scars of a life marred by equal measures of pain and financial privilege.
The documentary, the final part of which premieres today on Netflix, provides new insight into both the mind and career of Kanye. Directed by Coodie and Chike, the directors behind the music video for “Through The Wire”, and shot over the past 20 years, the project takes us through the early stages of Kanye’s career, from the lead-up to his debut album, The College Dropout, all the way through to the present day.
The trope of the veil-lifting music documentary is now an imperative part in the journey of a modern rockstar. Over the past five years alone, Billie Eilish, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift have all released documentaries (two also via Netflix) that purported to peer behind the curtain of celebrity. While all, in some ways, were successful at doing so, the main barrier that remains in place is the idea of control. We are shown only what feels necessary according to the artist themselves, most of whom harbour producer credits on these projects. The difference with jeen-yuhs, however, is that its origins were far humbler: the documentary started shooting at a time when no one seemed to care about who Kanye West was except Coodie and Kanye himself. The idea of framing only seemed to matter once the world learned his name.
What that gives us, though, is a revealing look into Kanye’s journey to legendary status, showing us how it was not without its fair share of rejection, pain and tragedy. While the first part of the documentary chronicles Kanye’s professional woes — a time when he was racking up producing credits but rarely trusted behind a mic himself — his near-fatal car crash in 2002 is the centrepiece of the second. It marks the first time that the footage from this era has seen the light of day.
Kanye’s car crash is unpacked within jeen-yuhs as it was in real time – he was trying to shoot the video for “Through the Wire” only six weeks after an accident that nearly killed him — but it’s hard not to watch and notice a shift in his demeanour after the accident happened. It coincides with Ye’s quips and generally warm personality shifting towards cold glares and aloof, haughty behaviour. Was it the crash or the success that led to that change?
Intrepid — some say delusional — levels of self-belief often come mixed with a desire to rewrite your own history. By this point in his career, Kanye had started to flirt with the possibility of success, and the bruising setbacks that preceded it (the accident; his battle for recognition amongst his peers) became footnotes in his backstory. When you observe his trajectory now, these moments seldom appear in his history unless you look for them. This is not necessarily the work of Kanye himself, rather it shows our desire to transform our heroes into infallible people at times. But jeen-yuhs’ insight and comprehensiveness reminds us of those building blocks that created Kanye, as a person and persona.
The documentary’s third section — beginning in 2007 — is where the relationship between Ye and Coodie transforms, and Ye’s internal desire to control the narrative takes hold. Suddenly, Coodie is situated on the outside of Ye’s career looking in. “They say ‘overconfident’ like it’s a bad thing,” Kanye ruminates during this part of the documentary, speaking to a group of school children as part of an event for Donda’s House, a foundation created with his late mother. “I think overconfident… maybe that needs to be a bad word. I’mma tell you how I feel about me: I am the greatest!”. We see the etchings of Kanye’s ego begin to form in response to the weakness he felt at the beginning of his career; there’s an interesting tension between confidence and narcissism that Ye seems to try to balance.
Donda was often how he found it. She has a key presence in the early stages of the documentary (we see her rap alongside her son, learning his lyrics), and was noted saying that she was as grateful for having Kanye as she was for life itself. Her sudden death in 2007, depicted in the film through the medium frenzied audio calls to the ER after she was found unresponsive, plunges Kanye into a weak position — his artistic might and emotions battling it out in a fight that would, eventually, become a creatively fulfilling dance. Since her passing, she’s become a lasting creative muse for Kanye; he’s back on stage a week after her death.
Though Kanye invited Coodie on tour — and bumped into him a few times afterwards — the rapper tells the man shooting a documentary of his life to halt filming altogether in the third part of jeen-yuhs. For the six years up until the present day, we watch the chaos of Kanye’s life unfold from a distance: his award show drama; his apparent beef with President Obama; his turbulent relationship with the media in 2014, his marriage to then-wife Kim Kardashian. “I knew Kanye, but I had never met Yeezy,” Coodie says.
How many people is this true for in Kanye’s life? Now detached from the artist himself, jeen-yuhs adopts a more philosophical take on the life of Kanye after his mother’s death, and how six years of a persistent media constantly trying to peer into his business affected him. It occurs on a macro-level, observing Kanye’s relationship with fans and the media, and his specific, sudden disenchantment with Coodie and his camera.
It’s easy to argue that Kanye has fallen from grace – but how have the events within his life enabled that downfall? How was Kanye changed by them? Kanye’s bipolar diagnosis is rarely ever understood within the context of the erraticism that he is known for currently, which says much about the birds-eye view assumptions that watching him over the last few years has created. It creates a complex scenario for the spectator in his life: do the assertions of self-control and personal autonomy supposedly override the consequences of mental illness?
The idea that Kanye just shouldn’t behave the way that he does, as if his actions are not often informed by his bipolar disorder, raises interesting questions about how we handle the coalescence of race, gender and mental health both in public and in private. jeen-yuhs doesn’t spoon-feed you the answers to these questions, but it does provide you with ample evidence of its subject's underreported setbacks and amplified successes.
“Kanye’s forward thinking, innovative spirit (the bruising parts of which most were shielded from until this documentary dropped) sometimes feels purely nostalgic – divorced from his current representation.”
Where do our memories of Kanye stand now? At the time of writing, he is currently preoccupied with Pete Davidson, who has started dating his ex-wife. He’s launched “Donda 2” at a Miami concert which fell victim to a few technical errors, but those shortcomings were quickly rectified by a conversation-spurring rollout of the official record on Stem Players, followed by the unveiling of his super-hyped, Balenciaga-engineered collaboration with GAP. The album itself, though, officially reached critics today, and reviews have been less than favourable.
We are entering a new era of Kanye’s public life. Kanye’s forward thinking, innovative spirit (the bruising parts of which most were shielded from until this documentary dropped) sometimes feels purely nostalgic — divorced from his current representation. For every landmark achievement, there is a setback. But maybe that’s all part of Kanye West’s convoluted master plan. “You might say, you miss the old Kanye,” Coodie says at the end of the documentary. “What I’m realising now is that every part of Kanye makes him who he is.”
jeen-yus: a Kanye Trilogy is streaming now on Netflix.