The Kanye You Thought You Knew

Jeen-Yuhs is the quintessential visual document of Ye’s career. It’s also an unnervingly neat read.

The man formerly known as Mr. West. Photo: Courtesy of Netflix
The man formerly known as Mr. West. Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Fandom is an orthodoxy, a belief in a shared set of accepted truths, a coalition united in appreciation of the goodness of a single figure, observant of the holidays, like birthdays and notable anniversaries, and discouraging of heretical stances. If you love Jay-Z, you likely know who Emory is and what Young Guru does, and you probably have a lot to say about 1997’s platinum-selling, critically appreciated In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 being underrated. If you’re a Swiftie, you love puzzles but loathe scooters. If you love Yeezy, you believe the multi-hyphenate fashion and music mogul born Kanye West continues to succeed after cheating death in 2002 because he heeds no compass but his own. This inspires unique artistry but also outrage — you can’t make an omelet without cracking some eggs. And Ye’s incredible longevity in the face of a string of potentially career-ending gaffes is possible proof he knows something maybe the rest of us don’t. People take him for granted, and then he delivers. That’s his gospel. In his fleeting dispatches this year from Instagram, his latest pulpit, Ye has expressed an interest in controlling his career narrative and lashed out at the media outlets who challenge him while thanking gossip publications that offer little editorializing on his behavior. But he’s more irascible than usual lately, prone to clapping back at perceived slights in posts he later deletes. Running for president in 2020 dinged his reputation, and he takes each public challenge to the campaign from worried friends and acquaintances personally. Beef with Pete Davidson, who’s dating his estranged wife, Kim Kardashian West, is yielding catastrophic headlines. Ye wishes people were talking about anything other than his many missteps.

Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy — a three-part Netflix documentary directed by Clarence “Coodie” Simmons Jr. and Chike Ozah, whose work history includes videos for “Through the Wire,” “Jesus Walks,” and Erykah Badu’s “Window Seat” — rolls out this month over three consecutive weeks, each offering an hour and a half of access to the inner workings of Ye’s career as gleaned from hundreds of hours of old camcorder footage. They started filming Ye before The College Dropout, you see, so it’s telling the story of its famous subject and the story of the strangeness of its own birth, its role to be the quintessential visual document of Ye’s career. It’s equally a story about friendship. The Yeezy myth is laid bare as Coodie and Chike reveal how precariously Ye’s Roc-A-Fella debut came into existence, how his public reputation soured later on, and how he bounced back repeatedly from each scandal seemingly unscathed but doubtlessly changed. He knows what he wants and where to get it even when people are not yet sold on what he’s pitching. He’s a laser beam trained on greatness, clear in his aims and blunt in his rage. Jeen-Yuhs seats you up close during incredible scenes like Pharell hearing “Through the Wire” and walking out purely gobsmacked or the heads of Roc-A-Fella Records being won over through attrition.

This isn’t a typical talking-head documentary in which historical events are picked apart and analyzed. Like Beyoncé’s Life Is But a Dream, Jeen-Yuhs is all fly-on-the-wall access, the kind growing increasingly rare as celebrities get cagier about public perceptions, now that it’s easier to incur negative press, while skirting press in favor of their own manicured social media. Jeen-Yuhs doesn’t challenge its subject, but it doesn’t ignore his flaws. Maybe it’s not so different in tone from a probing docuseries rolling out alongside a new album from a pop star with a real rocky backstory, a bit like PR in its adherence to the subject’s preferred interpretation of the events depicted. But those docs don’t usually carry the weight of self-mythology, proclaimed genius, and past hits as Ye does, and few have seen a schism in the fandom quite like the aftermath of Ye’s Republican conversion. Jeen-Yuhs plays coolly to both sides of the rift. You get the sense that it’s able to exist principally because it is easygoing, that Ye would never subject himself to the degree of prying needed to make an achievement like the Michael Jordan docuseries, that Coodie stays in the picture because his primary interest is in brotherhood and in giving Ye an answer to the classic basketball doc Hoop Dreams, which followed Chicago high-school students on a path to the NBA. In interviews, the pair get spiritual about the experience. “I would say that God writes and Jesus directs,” Coodie recently explained. Chike sees Ye in need of a more sympathetic portrayal in the press: “A lot of people have only seen Kanye through a media lens, which I don’t think necessarily contains empathy.” Jeen-Yuhs is good about unpacking how Ye feels in moments of great personal misfortune, but it lets us lurk in its footage and process Yet’s mistakes on our own while evading tantalizing questions like “Why?”

“I knew Kanye, but I had never met Yeezy,” Coodie, our narrator, exhales at one point in the third section of Jeen-Yuhs, but by then, he’s provided the clearest picture yet of the route from Ye’s early breakthrough producing for Mase’s Harlem World group to the loud debates and confrontations of more recent days. The strengths and weaknesses that animate Ye’s greatest achievements and biggest missteps were there all along. His dreams were consistent and simple. His ego was always massive. For listeners who’ve fallen out with Ye in the past five years of his concerning antics, Jeen-Yuhs is a poignant reminder of the time when the worst he’d put you through as a fan was a cocky award-show speech or a controversial remark that genuinely needed to be uttered, when you were more inclined to yell along with him than at him.

It’s a focal era in which Ye united fashion-conscious Lo-heads, street-smart New York and Chicago rappers, and the still strong conscious hip-hop set. (“I’m just as much Roc-A-Fella as I am Rawkus,” he notes in the first third of Jeen-Yuhs, telegraphing appearances from Jay-Z, Freeway, and both members of Black Star on The College Dropout in 2004.) If you’re a longtime unwavering diehard, you get to see all the dots connected between the more familiar points in Ye’s history to learn that turning “All Falls Down” into a spoken-word piece performed on Def Poetry Jam was just about getting on every single radar he could, to know just how much was riding on that 2002 episode of MTV’s You Hear It First, to watch legendary but unsuccessful plans cooking like Scarface briefly considering contributing a verse to “Jesus Walks” or the visit with Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey in which Ye pitches the pair on a flip of Jay-Z and Biggie’s “Brooklyn’s Finest” we never got to hear.

Covering multiple decades in a few hours, Jeen-Yuhs makes incremental shifts in the artist’s work and public approach feel like noticeable ripples. Ye code-switches subtly throughout the doc, and you can almost hear him working out how much bass to employ and in whose company. We all do, consciously or unconsciously. But in the documentary, it feels as if Ye is working out what kind of public figure he wants to be, a task he handles with the utmost care: We see him plan to give a graceful speech he’ll give if he ever gets a Grammy, words we know he’ll ditch in 2005 when Dropout wins Best Rap Album and the visibly shaken rapper goes hilariously off the prefab script: “Everybody wanted to know what I would do if I didn’t win … I guess we’ll never know.”

Humility is a chore for Ye even when he’s shopping The College Dropout to uninterested major labels. He behaves like someone who knows they are living their own legend. His dog’s name was Genius. After a near-fatal car crash, Ye comes up with the concept for the “Through the Wire” video on the spot at the dentist’s and even saves the wire for archival purposes. Ye seems sure hard work always pays off, and he succeeds beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. You realize that the gatekeepers of the fields Ye sought to enter never knew what to do with him, not in the early aughts — when few in the music industry took Ye’s rap aspirations seriously in spite of rapper-producer precedents of note like Dr. Dre and Q-Tip, obvious inspirations for early Ye beats — and not in the flurry of Keeping Up With the Kardashians shoots and TMZ headlines of the past decade. The first two-thirds of Jeen-Yuhs cover Ye methodically collecting the respect of the underground- and mainstream-rap vanguards, creating new allegiances. It’s a warm and affecting origin story, a four-plus-hour lore bomb, and an elaborate making-of for Ye’s first classic.

Then things start to break. Tape keeps rolling, and in the final section, Jeen-Yuhs attempts to grapple with everything that has happened since the first album dropped, checking in on Ye at ever wider intervals as Coodie struggles to catch up. It’s true to the experience of being friends with someone who suddenly finds their time divided between a hundred professional pursuits and friends and family from day one. Coodie and Ye don’t always hang, but they inevitably find time to reconnect, though you sense it stings to lose the easy access of the early years and to have to fight for time amid Ye’s increasingly questionable business endeavors. It’s apparent Ye likes having him around; Coodie ties him to his early days. With the director around, Ye always has someone in the room whose motives he doesn’t need to question. The doc shows us how the videographer checks in on his mother, the late educator Donda West, while her son is away on business. Coodie is too close to this history to view it objectively. He largely avoids editorializing; really, he’s here to inspire. Ye has been interviewed and criticized plenty, but we haven’t often gotten to just hang back and experience Ye in his element, expressing himself without worrying how it’ll be spun online. A sterner and more critical documentary might ask more pointed questions about the subject’s motivations, but it wouldn’t have been able to get us into those rooms. You wish Coodie took a chance and prodded more; would we get as much candor if he did?

Tracing events from the death of Donda through the fallout of Ye’s ill-fated 2020 presidential campaign, the last third of Jeen-Yuhs sees the star dealing with fame, criticism, loss, and mental illness as he works on music, clothes, politics, and other pursuits. You watch Ye tour through his grief and seek new friends while old ones jostle for his time. It’s a pattern. Ye pushes himself too hard and eventually says something out of pocket, upsetting the public and drawing smoke from critics who slowly get squeezed out of his life, discarded like anyone else who doubted the artist’s creativity and good judgment. Fame is isolating, and without the guidance of Donda — the root of Ye’s support system and an absolute delight in the early hours of Jeen-Yuhs — Ye seems profoundly adrift. The popular wisdom about this period says Ye lost the one person capable of truly breaking through his veneer of moneyed contempt for authority figures; her presence in this film as a fount of support and a voice of reason supports that thinking.

But this is a point in the doc when Coodie is out of constant contact and starting to move on with his life. He can’t see all the individual steps that took his friend from the affable old Kanye to the coarse and cocky Yeezy, but he can surmise — as witness to West’s highs and lows, to his red carpets and funerals — how Ye might feel. Stepping back into the picture in 2020, Coodie’s not around to finish his doc but rather to check in and offer a listening ear in the heat of a chilling discourse about his friend’s very sanity amid a glut of outbursts and bad decisions. Ye’s adulation for Donald Trump alienated fans who respected the care for the everyman he exhibited in his early records. Public disputes with longtime collaborators like John Legend and Kid Cudi destroyed the sense of boundary-breaking brotherhood his talented and versatile G.O.O.D. Music collective once engendered. Jeen-Yuhs can’t explain this behavior, though it does give you a window into the blowback. The sight in the doc’s final minutes of Ye making excited gun noises in response to a clip of Tucker Carlson defending him on Fox News is as frosty an indictment of where this journey started and ended as any think piece can offer. But it doesn’t feel as if Jeen-Yuhs is throwing shots — more like that’s just where the tape left off.

The cycle is repeating. West is once again saying things he regrets and putting distance between himself and his troubles by filling up his schedule with activities and emptying out his brain online. His own family isn’t spared from his fire. The old Kanye who never purported to care what we thought of him is playing to the sympathy of strangers on Instagram, but Jeen-Yuhs shows that Ye’s arrogance has always come with a side of yearning for someone else’s approval, whether it was elusive acceptance from rap figureheads like Jay-Z and Dame Dash or from political pundits like Carlson and Candace Owen or from the owners of the fashion houses Ye was petitioning to work for during the argumentative Yeezus rollout or from the laundry list of buzzing young rappers and singers who guested on the Donda album last summer. At the end of Jeen-Yuhs, Coodie supposes you couldn’t detach the good West has done from the problems he’s created: “You might say you miss the old Kanye, but what I’m realizing now is that every part of Kanye makes him who he is.” This is an unnervingly neat read but also a key point in the Kanye fan pathology: Great suffering produces great art. It’s a spooky outlook because it commodifies suffering and reframes gaffes as fodder for future classics, setting tongues wagging whenever the artist is in a bad way.

Jeen-Yuhs stops short of saying this, but its core interest lies not in changing our perception of Ye but in reinforcing what we already know and love. What Jeen-Yuhs lacks in critical analysis, though, it compensates for in unprecedented closeness. It’ll be hailed as something of a classic thanks to the wealth of incredible moments it captures, and that’s a point for the ingenuity of the directors, who hatched this idea years before they could have had any inkling as to where this journey would lead them and stuck with it for two decades, whittling scores of hours of film into a winding narrative. (Not even Ye crowing about not having the final say about what goes in the doc before he saw any of it could stop them.) There isn’t much like Jeen-Yuhs in the field. Few stars at Ye’s level would ever let us see them sweat like this, and few directors could coax it out.

The Kanye You Thought You Knew