A legend in the making

Kanye ‘‘Ye’’ West and Donda West in jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy. PHOTO: NETFLIX
Kanye ‘‘Ye’’ West and Donda West in jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy. PHOTO: NETFLIX
A new documentary series is an essential portrait of hip-hop star Kanye West’s rise, writes Adam Graham.

If there ever was an artist who was going to have a documentary rolling on themselves from the very beginning of their career, it’s Kanye West.

The dizzying result of more than 20 years of intimately shot footage, jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy is an enthralling, essential chronicle of one of the world’s greatest living artists and most fascinating — and frustrating — personalities. Love him or hate him, you can’t take your eyes off of him, and the three-part, four-and-a-half-hour jeen-yuhs never blinks in its depiction of the man behind the myth, and how the myth eventually eclipsed the man.

Jeen-yuhs — sound it out if it’s throwing you off — is directed by Clarence "Coodie" Simmons and Chike Ozah, who are professionally known as Coodie & Chike. Coodie was documenting Chicago’s hip-hop scene in the 1990s for a TV show called Channel Zero, and he first met Kanye at hip-hop super producer Jermaine Dupri’s birthday in 1998. From there, the cameras never stopped rolling, and Coodie, who also narrates the film, is along for the ride as Kanye becomes one of the world’s biggest superstars.

Jeen-yuhs shows that Kanye was always Kanye — the talent was there from the very beginning, as were the ego and the bravado — but he just needed to catch the right breaks and have the right doors opened for him to get where he was going. Everybody needs a helping hand, and it’s surprising to see Kanye practically begging MTV, still a powerful gatekeeper and star maker in the early ’00s, to shine a spotlight on him.

His resilience and his belief in himself is part of his drive. Scratching and clawing to have those barriers in his way broken down — and to erase the stigma of the limiting "producer-rapper" tag that was applied to him — only made him hungrier for his eventual success.

The first of the documentary’s three chapters, titled Vision, largely focuses on Kanye’s early hustle, working to get a record deal and eventually landing one with Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records.

Part two, Purpose, surrounds the making of his 2004 debut album The College Dropout and his rise to international superstardom, and the third part, Awakening, is about Kanye’s transition to the brash Yeezy character and his slip from any sort of recognisable reality. Coodie, ever present and without agenda, captures moments that define each of these eras, and Kanye’s own words frame the narrative of his story.

It’s his mother, Donda, who acted as the rock in his life. Jeen-yuhs rounds up early, quiet moments between Kanye and his mum that show the depth of his love and appreciation for her, and her for him. She’s his biggest fan and his most vocal cheerleader, and she keeps him grounded even as he’s ascending to the cosmos.

Donda’s sudden death in 2007 marked a turning point in Kanye’s life, and jeen-yuhs shows the before and after and the lasting effects her death left on him.

As a documentary subject, Kanye is magnetic, and jeen-yuhs shows the small, vulnerable moments that break through his superhuman facade: his hurt when his Chicago friend and mentor Dug Infinite publicly turns on him, his reverence for rap figureheads such as Scarface and Jay-Z, his innocence in trying to impress a child in the hallways of a recording studio by rattling off his production credits.

Coodie and Chike also capture the buzz and electricity that surrounds the making of a megastar. There’s a revelatory feel in the early footage, especially during a backstage rhyme session where Kanye and Mos Def perform an a cappella rendition of their early collaboration Two Words.

You can see the elation on Mos Def’s face as he basks in the energy of a young Kanye. And you can see the determination in Kanye as he commands the camera, at one point standing up to make the lens refocus on him, as he blows everyone in the room away with his talent. It’s a transcendent moment, and even Kanye knows it.

Jeen-yuhs acts as an inspirational story and also a cautionary tale, as the latter scenes show the effects of all that fame and all that unchecked megalomania on his person. It’s a crash course in Kanye, and the good, the bad and the ugly of a one-of-a-kind visionary and living legend.

There’s a scene early in jeen-yuhs that shows Kanye showing up at the offices of Roc-A-Fella and rapping for almost anyone who will listen. It’s already a bit of a running joke at this point that he’s having a documentary made about himself, and one of the guys in the office jokes about whether the doc is nearing completion.

"It’ll never be finished," Kanye says, and in a sense the story of Kanye West is still very much being told. But jeen-yuhs is a vital document on how we got this far.

— TCA

jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy is available on Netflix.

 

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