In his 2016 album The Life of Pablo, Kanye West cheekily included a 44 second track called “I Love Kanye” which featured the lyrics “I miss the old Kanye, straight from the go Kanye/Chop up the soul Kanye, set on his goals Kanye/I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye/The always rude Kanye, spaz in the news Kanye.”
The song simultaneously poked fun at his ego driven image while playfully taking jabs at his detractors who no longer recognized the artist they once knew. It turns out that few really knew West, not the way that former stand-up comedian Clarence “Coodie” Simmons did. In part one of jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy Simmons and co-director Chike Ozah (aka Coodie & Chike) present a version of West few were privileged to see, the man before he became a legend.
Sifting through over 320 hours of footage to construct a 4.5-hour three-part documentary film that will air on Netflix in February, the first installment of jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy is ultimately a tale of perseverance and faith. When Coodie first met 21-year-old West, then a rising producer in the hip hop scene, at Jermain Dupri’s birthday party in 1998 he instantly knew he was encountering someone special. Inspired by the documentary Hoop Dreams, Coodie decided to give to leave his job as the host of “Channel Zero”, a public access show about the Chicago rap scene, and make a documentary that followed West on the road to securing a record deal as a rapper. What he did not anticipate was that West’s career would ascend so high that he could practically touch the sky.
While West always believed in his abilities as an artist, he struggled to chisel through the concrete barriers that separated producers and rappers. Producer-rappers were simply not a thing in hip hop at the time. Although people loved his beats, he produced half of Jay-Z’s blockbuster album The Blueprint, including the smash hit song “Izzo (H.O.V.A),” many in the industry were content to keep him in the producer box where they could reach in and grab a hot beat from him whenever they need one.
This did little to douse the passionate fire in West, the naysayers merely fanned the flames further. As Coodie & Chike show in the first film in their trilogy, dubbed “Vision,” West was unrelenting in achieving his goal. He shopped his material to several labels, even going as far as storming into Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records office playing his song “All Falls Down” for anyone who would listen. Courting connections to secure a profile on MTV’s premier artist’s launching pad “You Hear it First,” West never took his talent and hustle for granted. The goal always remained in focus even when the path seemed to detour.
Those who have been long-time fans of West, or have at least listened to his The College Dropout album, will be familiar with his well-documented early struggles. What jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy adds to the lore is an intimate look at West’s resilience. It offers the type of candid portrait that only close friends could capture. One gets to see West crafting some of his most memorable songs in his apartment, joyous moments such as when Yassin “Mos Def” Bey and West drop some bars from “Two Words” backstage at a Talib Kweli’s show, and the validation West gets when the rapper Scarface recognizes the greatness of the beats for “Jesus Walks” and “Family Business.”
Considering the mountains he climbed to garner respect in the industry, the film provides additional context to why West’s egotistical personality was more than braggadocious banter.
West’s confidence was his shield of armour that allowed him to survive the knives of jealously and doubt other were trying to stab him with. In one intriguing sequence, West returns to Chicago to take part in an industry conference only to discover that a mentor who praise him mere hours earlier has released a diss track against him. One can see the pain of betrayal in West’s eyes. While the green-eyed monster of jealousy would come for him in various ways throughout his career, West’s had the ultimate guardian angel, his mother Donda, in his corner every step of the way.
She was his biggest fan and champion. She could not only recite rap lyrics West wrote in high school, but also understood the delicate mixture of bravado and humbleness needed to be a success.
A riveting and surprisingly inspiring film, jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy effectively captures the pre-fame years of West with nuance and grace. Considering that the first film only covers his journey to signing with Roc-A-Fella Records, and stops before the infamous car crash, those looking for a more in-depth look at the problematic Trump era version of West will need to adjust their expectations. Although one sees brief glimpses of the “Black mentality” rhetoric, that will get West into trouble years later, they come off as off-handed comments rather than polarizing statements. It should also be noted that the film is just as much about Coodie’s making of the documentary as it is about West. The path of both men, and the blind faith they had in each other, is so intertwined that it makes sense that Coodie would be a key supporting character.
While it will be interesting to see how Coodie’s relationship with West impacts his perception of the more controversial moments of the rapper’s career in the subsequent films, the first installment serves as a perfect reminder that there is more to West than the persona he has become. For a period in the early 2000s he was simply a talented musician who was determined to make his own opportunities rather than wait for them to be handed to him. West believed he had the ability to change the hip hop landscape but did not realize just how bright his star would shine. While many may miss the old Kanye, jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy offers a perfect time capsule of the hunger and passion that made us love him in the first place.
jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy screens as part of Sundance and will play in weekly installments on Netflix beginning February 16.