A new documentary about American rapper and record producer Ye, more commonly known by his birth name Kanye West, in now on Netflix.
In "jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy,” fans and detractors get a raw glimpse into Kanye West on the brink. This is Kanye not quite on the cusp, but on the periphery of it, tasting his success in fits and bursts but never getting a chance to savor it. This is the Kanye who knows who he is – deeply, profoundly – even as he struggles to be heard above a hundred other voices in the room.
Always brilliant, bright and driven, here, audiences get a deeper look at the time before the rest of the world also saw that greatness. Created in a three-act structure by directors Clarence "Coodie" Simmons and Chike Ozah, "jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy" is, minus a somewhat middling third act, mostly captivating, contemplative and joyful.
Unlike more traditional documentaries, "jeen-yuhs" begins with Kanye already at work. There are little lingering insights into West's childhood or education or earliest inspirations before he began making music, which may be frustrating to some. However, minutes into the film, it is clear Simmons is making a stronger argument for West as a fully-formed mind. Do those moments matter? In the grand scheme of things, probably not. The Kanye we know today – complicated, frustrating, ablaze – was always that Kanye.
West (who is now legally known as Ye) had begun to make a name for himself creating beats for other artists. But while most people thought he was just a producer, West told Simmons that "the only reason" he "makes beats is to rap over them."
It would be a long time between their initial encounter in 1998 on Simmons' public access show, Channel Zero, and the release of West's debut album, "The College Dropout," in 2004. But even then, West was sure of his talent, his possibility. Simmons was too. Later, inspired by his drive – as well as the mega success of the West-produced track "Izzo (H.O.V.A.) by Jay-Z" – Simmons moved to New York to create a documentary about West and see how far he could go.
And go he would, but his momentum was never through a straightforward or easy path. Sometimes West's greatest detractors were the people around him, the folks who only wanted to see him for what he was and not what he could be. "I might be living your American Dream, but I'm nowhere near where my dream is," West says at one point.
Throughout the documentary, Simmons lingers on long recorded scenes of West at work, at play, in frustration. Rather than employ the insights of talking heads like traditional documentaries, Simmons lets the scenes tell the story. Minus a fluid, thoughtful monologue woven throughout the film and co-written by Simmons and poet/artist J. Ivy, most dialogue comes from the captured glimpses into the past. Each moment is almost cinematic, as if Simmons (and West) understood it would be these scenes and conversations – while chilling and playing pool, while driving through the streets of New York City, while picking up an order from Leon's BBQ on Chicago's South Side – that would reveal the real story of West.
In an early scene in the documentary, West, Simmons and a few others ambush the Roc A Fella offices. West is determined to be signed by the label, especially after producing some of Jay-Z's most successful tracks on "The Blueprint." Going from staffer to staffer, West plays a rough cut of "All Falls Down," a track that would later become the third single from his debut album. Most in the office are distracted, underwhelmed, unwilling to see West as anything other than what he has always been.
It is a sentiment that will permeate throughout West’s long and arduous journey from Chicago beatmaker to rapper. Success, of course, is not linear. West's trajectory is one step forward and two steps back, especially during those early days. Still he keeps going. Most may settle for what they've already created, but West is pure energy in motion. "Imma use everything everybody says that I can't do and imma flip it to a positive," West says.
Underlining all of this is West's relationship with his mother, Donda West, the only person who believed in West as much as West believed in himself. If West is the abrasive visionary, Donda is the funny, warm, loving heart. She encourages his dreams, his demeanor. And throughout the documentary, audiences get a deeper understanding of her place in his life. Everything West does is not just to fulfill his purpose as an artist, it is also to fulfill his promise to her.
In "jeen-yuhs," Donda often appears around the latter half of each act, serving as the grounding force as West's world changes around him. During Act I, it is West before and immediately after signing. In Act II, it is after the life-altering car accident that inspired West's debut single, "Through the Wire." West loses his budget and label support, taking over his own promotion. Donda keeps him going. After the tragic death of West's mother, West loses and gains and loses his footing in a cycle we've come to understand well.
That is why Act III feels somewhat dissatisfying. Part of it was out of the director's hands. Simmons had followed West throughout his rise from Chicago upstart to the release of his debut. But as fame finally arrived (and to massive proportions), Simmons' access and interest in the subject matter dissipated. By the release of "Late Registration" and "Graduation" (as well as the death of his mother), the Kanye West that Simmons knew was somewhat gone.
West's later years become something of a blur. Fans looking for deep insight into personal life, his marriage and family, will be disappointed. Little is also given on his later works like now-classic albums such as "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" or "808s and Heartbreaks." As a critic, I especially wanted more on those two seminal works released soon after Donda's death. Perhaps they'll be explored in another documentary at a later time.
Ultimately, Simmons and Ozah make clear those details are not the story. Simmons returns after the Kanye we've grown to know (and sometimes abhor) has firmly settled. This is post marriage, post children, post public mental breakdown. Still, their six-year absence doesn't detract from the question, the story, that's always been at the heart of West's journey: who can an artist be when free to be all things?
While the rest of us are living in the past and the present, West is future-driven. What can he do? Who can he be? Where can he go? These questions don't plague West, but invigorate him, motivate him. In "jeen-yuhs," the central struggle is making others embrace the power and beauty of his foresight.