Few celebrities are as hard to pin down as Kanye West. The 44-year-old rapper, fashion designer, former presidential candidate and tabloid staple, who legally changed his name to the mononym Ye last year, appears to be mess incarnate, at least by the standards of decorum and self-commoditization we traditionally expect from stars.
There’s the Kanye of “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” and the Kanye of the slavery-was-a-choice embarrassment. There’s high-fashion Kanye and Kardashian Kanye, man-of-the-people Kanye and prophet-of-his-own-greatness Kanye. Just in the past few years, there’s been the Kanye who donated $2 million to the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, as well as the Kanye who declared “love” for President Donald Trump, then disavowed politics shortly thereafter.
Online, there’s also been rampant speculation about which of his outrageous statements can be attributed to his eccentricities, and which to his bipolar disorder. West, who’s been open about his diagnosis but bristles when his pronouncements are dismissed as products of his condition, would surely chalk up his contradictions to his free thinking. But many of us just aren’t sure who or what we’re looking at when he makes the headlines these days, or how to talk about it.
The big promise of the new Netflix documentary “Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy,” then, is the simplicity of its story about West. The first time co-director Clarence “Coodie” Simmons Jr. heard the rapper’s music, he says, he knew West was destined for Grammys. Hoping to capture the latter’s rise (a la “Hoop Dreams”), Coodie started filming when West was still trying to get signed by Roc-A-Fella Records, the label co-founded by Jay-Z. The three-part docuseries, comprising a trio of 90-minute installments, is largely a portrait of the artist as a young underdog, pigeonholed by the record company as a producer (i.e., not a rapper) but tirelessly encouraged by his adoring mother Donda.
Most successful artists were struggling newcomers at the start of their careers, so it’s unclear what the average viewer is supposed to glean from the docuseries’s glimpses of West at the earliest stage of his ascent, other than an uncomplicated nostalgia for “the old Kanye.”
Narrated by Coodie, “Jeen-yuhs” often feels like the co-director’s attempts to make the world see West through the eyes of a longtime pal like himself, but we don’t get enough context for their relationship for that point of view to fully develop. Too often, the docuseries seems as if it’s pieced together to lend some purpose to the footage that Coodie shot all those years ago, with no real cohesion or narrative to elevate it into something more. In an interview with Vulture, Coodie said he wanted the audience to believe that “they can have a dream and make it,” but that message isn’t so persuasive when his example is a once-in-a-generation talent like West.
There’s no doubt that Coodie captured some real intimacy on his tapes. “Jeen-yuhs” takes us inside West’s extremely early-20s apartments in Chicago, where he grew up, and New York, where he moved to pursue a record deal. In various recording studios — including the one in Jamie Foxx’s house — we’re treated to stripped-down versions of West’s early songs. And in some of the docuseries’s most endearing and relatable scenes, the rapper displays a shyness about the retainer he wears and listens carefully to Donda’s explanations of why the arrogance that others perceive in him shouldn’t be his problem. West is relatively unselfconscious, particularly about being seen as a mama’s boy, perhaps because Coodie’s affections for the warm and convivial Donda are so evident, too.
Coodie met his collaborator behind the camera, Chike Ozah, with whom he helmed the music video for West’s “Through the Wire,” when Ozah worked at MTV. “Jeen-yuhs” is bookended by special effects and fast-cut editing that recall the now-charmingly lo-fi aesthetics that defined the network in the early to mid-’90s.
Paced more like a hangout than a race, the first chapter of “Jeen-yuhs” builds to West’s signing his Roc-A-Fella contract, and its second leads up to his Grammy wins for his debut album, “The College Dropout.” Coodie’s camera often takes a fly-on-the-wall approach, even joining West at his doctor’s appointments after the rapper breaks his jaw in three places in a near-fatal car accident. But the co-director’s apparent hesitation to ask follow-up questions also deprives us of West’s emotions and reactions at crucial junctures, such as when his subject declares, without a trace of irony, that the revelation he had in his hospital bed after cheating death was to aspire to become hip-hop’s best-dressed rapper.
It’s in the final third that the docuseries’s weaknesses most reveal themselves. Spanning about a decade and a half, from the release of “Late Registration,” West’s sophomore album, to 2020, Coodie increasingly finds himself on the outs as the rapper explodes in fame and controversy. The co-director, who offers no thoughts on how his following an up-and-coming rapper with a camera might affect his sense of self in the earlier installments, continues in his lack of introspection as superstardom and, later, a turn toward social conservatism wedge distance between the filmmaker and his subject. Coodie betrays few journalistic instincts; when West asks him to shelve his plans to release his documentary in 2006 because “he wasn’t ready for the world to see the real him” — West claims he was simply playing a role for the spotlight — “Jeen-yuhs” offers no elaboration.
Coodie’s older-brother protectiveness of his subject is clear; he interprets many of West’s scandals as grief over his mother’s death in 2007 and explains in voice-over that he turned the camera off during what may be a manic rant out of respect for West. (“Brotherhood over filmmaking” is how Coodie summed it up in the Vulture interview about that decision — an entirely defensible choice rooted in empathy, but also one that denies us a fuller picture of the rapper.) The boys’ club vibes emerge through the absences, too. Despite their muse status, neither Kim Kardashian, West’s wife, who filed for divorce in 2021, nor any of the rapper’s previous romantic partners, appear in Coodie’s footage.
“You might say you miss the old Kanye,” muses Coodie toward the end; he knows the sentiment is widely shared by fans. “Jeen-yuhs” feels like the co-director’s way of saying that they’re right to feel that way. But the more interesting and relevant narrative about West is no longer that of a confident, ambitious, sharp-eyed and idealistic young man desperate for the world to hear his music. Rather, it’s of how a multitalented artist, caught in the whirls of fame, ego, success, grief, mental health struggles and probable loneliness became a person unrecognizable to many of his early admirers. Coodie is sticking by his initial impressions. But we all know the Kanye West story is far more complicated.
The first part of “Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy” (90 minutes) streams Wednesday on Netflix; acts 2 and 3 premiere Feb. 23 and March 2.
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