(Netflix Documentary, 2022)
Reviewed by Leah Chillery
Kanye West is perhaps one of the most famous and controversial hip hop artists on the planet. Whether you love him, loathe him or are indifferent, this three-part Netflix documentary series jeen-yuhs is likely to have you cycle through all three.
Filmed and directed by Clarence Simmons (better known as Coodie) and Chike Ozah, this incredible, candid footage of Kanye’s adult life has been 21 years in the making. Coodie, who started out in the 1990s as a Chicago TV host, was so impressed by a young Kanye and his creative talent as a writer, beat maker and rapper that he decided to follow him around with a camera for a while, not knowing that Kanye was set for global superstardom and that the film would sell to Netflix for a reported $30 million over two decades later.
The first two parts of the series focus on Kanye’s struggle to be taken seriously as a rapper, despite the fact that he had already had a lot of success as a songwriter and producer. As someone who grew up listening to Puff Daddy, Jay Z, Lil’ Kim, Mos Def and Snoop Dogg, etc… it was such a pleasant surprise to see each of them appear in never-before-seen footage. However, Kanye’s journey as the underdog is painful to watch, even when you know that he eventually goes on to become a megastar. One such instance is a scene in the recording studio where a somewhat humble Kanye plays his track ‘Jesus Walks’ to the hip hop legend Scarface, only to have it harshly rejected. This is all the more mind-blowing given it’s now regarded as one of the greatest hip hop tracks of all time.
It’s hard not to fall for Kanye’s charm in those early years. He was certainly talented, driven and even likeable. Grandiosity and arrogance were always bubbling under the surface, but while his late mother Donda was around she seemed to keep him tethered to reality – ‘You can be in the air and on the ground at the same time,’ she said.
The scenes between the two of them are incredibly moving, especially if you already know that she passed away in 2007. It is clear to see now how Kanye’s mother’s death may have triggered the decline of his mental health, not least because without her there was no one to shield him from his own narcissism.
In 2004, Kayne released his debut album The College Dropout and his smash hit song ‘Through the Wire’ which put him on the world map. Disappointingly, as success began to flow, Kanye began distancing himself from Coodie. thereby depriving us of access to some really interesting moments in his life, including some of his greatest works, the infamous spat with Taylor Swift and even his marriage to Kim Kardashian.
When Coodie is eventually invited back to resume filming in 2017, things have already taken a downward turn and one of the most curious things about this documentary is that the energy you put into rooting for Kanye during his early years makes it difficult to change your feelings about him, even as his behaviour becomes increasingly disagreeable. Some scenes featuring an unhinged Kanye are particularly uncomfortable viewing, to the point that Coodie often turns off the camera out of respect.
jeen-yuhs goes a long way in helping us to understand the troubled genius himself and, perhaps, instead of condemning his seemingly outlandish behaviour we can, like his good friend Coodie, turn off the camera and simply wish for Kanye’s return to good health.