I admit, before I watched Jeen-yuhs, I didn’t know much about Kanye West beyond what the latest tabloid headlines told me. But I’m always interested in the relationship of class to celebrity, and celebrity to chaos, and the new three-part documentary playing on Netflix called Jeen-yuhs is pretty fascinating in that regard. Directed by Coodie and Chike, filmmakers who first came to national prominence directing the music video for Kanye’s “Through the Wire,” the series starts off with the premise that there’s a lot the public doesn’t know about the rapper and producer. It sets out to rectify that with a wealth of highly personal film charting his youthful rise to fame, his accomplishments and crises in the midst of overwhelming celebrity, and his gradual return to faith and early friendships.
In the late 1990s, Coodie was running the public access station Channel Zero in Chicago, tracking the development of Chicago hip-hop, when he encountered the teenage rap producer Kanye West, who was already a rising success. Impressed by West’s talent and determination to become a rap star in his own right, Coodie wound up shelving his own efforts to forge a career in stand-up comedy in order to make a documentary charting West’s drive for stardom.
Obviously, it was a good bet.
The first of the three-part series, “Vision,” is probably the most riveting in portraying the startlingly young Kanye’s attempts to make the jump from successful Chicago-based producer to rapper. Traveling to New York City to try to get a deal with Roc-A-Fella, a major rap label there, he’s turned away by generic offices full of disinterested staff, he’s “just another face in the crowd” at a party where Jay-Z and Beyoncé hold court, and he’s philosophizing in cars and fast-food restaurants and sparse living quarters about his own manifest genius and plans for greatness. Complicating the usual showbiz hierarchy of insiders obstructing the path of outsiders trying to find an entrance point, there’s a coastal city snobbery about Chicago that leads West and his friends to boost their city at every opportunity.
Throughout these trials, West’s confidence in his own talent is such that he gets a look of bemused annoyance on his face at all these delays keeping him from the goal he knows he’s going to reach. His beloved mother, Donda West, laughs to remember that, as a schoolboy, Kanye won every talent show hands down, except one, and how mad he was to have come in second place that one time. As if to prove that childhood loss still rankles in adulthood, Kanye West then talks at length about how he was prevented from winning by his own choice to impersonate Stevie Wonder, which interfered with his ability to move about the stage and make a more dominant impact.
After a rough interlude in New York City, there are touching scenes of West’s relief in returning to Chicago, “the most beautiful city in the world,” and, more importantly, to his mother, a career English professor at Chicago State University, and a single mother who raised him from the age of three after divorcing Ray West, a former Black Panther, pioneering black photojournalist, and later a Christian counselor. Donda West’s rock-solid support and easy ability to handle Kanye, his friends, and his intensely driven path to success obviously grounds her temperamental son. When he pays tribute to her by saying she deserves a little credit for raising him, “but basically I raised myself” — an obvious absurdity — she just laughs and says fondly, “Oh, Kanye.”
It’s a smart ending to the first installment of the series, establishing the melancholic loss of solid ground represented by his Chicago and his mother, who died at age fifty-eight in 2007, shockingly, from a botched plastic surgery. The installment had begun with 2020 footage of Kanye West in the Dominican Republic, acting like a deranged big boss in a tropical outdoor office, instructing his team to pursue two goals: furthering his run for president and getting the documentary film contracts ready for Coodie and Chike. The series shows West flying here, there, and everywhere, both geographically and psychologically, including a clip showing him making a Caligula-like announcement in a televised interview, explaining that he wrote the lyrics to his song “I Am a God” because, in fact, “I am a god!”
For all his alarming excesses, Kanye’s musical influence has been remarkable. His emotionally raw album 808s & Heartbreak, for example, is now credited with reshaping hip hop, opening up space for major figures like Drake and Frank Ocean. And West’s hubristic plunge into the world of high fashion design has actually yielded astonishing results in terms of his impact on, for example, the shoe industry worldwide. A major portion of new athletic shoes use the design and color palette inspired by West’s Yeezy sneakers.
The documentary’s coverage of some aspects of West’s success, such as his fashion world impact, can be a little sketchy, presumably because the directors are relying mostly on more generic media footage to track West’s phenomenal but troubled fame rather than Coodie’s personal film. It’s amazing to have such a wealth of Coodie’s footage of pre-stardom Kanye West, but comparatively little once his fame explodes, which is the opposite of the usual ratio of film footage of a star.
That’s because when Kanye broke through to major celebrity, in one of those grimly typical showbiz transitions, he sidelined his old friend Coodie. Remarkably, in the documentary, Coodie includes some of the low points of his own rejection on film. Captured by someone else’s camera at a star-studded party, a very drunk Kanye hangs all over Coodie but repeatedly calls him “Chike” in a tone of mockingly effusive affection. Even after the obviously wounded Coodie protests, “Come on, you don’t even know my name?” Kanye keeps doing it as a cruelly deliberate dig.
The directors increasingly return to Coodie’s footage as West begins to reach out to him more often, initially prompted by Donda. Her untimely death and a series of other traumas drove Kanye to a mental breakdown and ultimately an intensification of his religious faith, shared by Coodie. His footage of West’s church-like Sunday Service sessions, starting in 2019, leading the Sunday Service Choir in song lists including gospel reinterpretations of his own discography at a different location each week, concludes the documentary. As Coodie sums it up, regarding his and Kanye West’s shared Christian beliefs when it comes to human achievement, “With faith, all things are possible.”
By this ending point, though there are gripping sequences throughout, the overall narrative arc of the documentary seems heavy-handed and reductive. It follows an arc broadly similar (and equally reductive) to that of the recent Aretha Franklin biopic Respect (2021), charting the early rise to fame of a great talent, the personal chaos catalyzed by fame and a booming career, and finally the return to stabilizing roots in family and the church that inspires even more powerful music.
While it’s understandable that the directors want to avoid dwelling on the more lurid tabloid aspects of Kanye’s fame by tamping down the frenzy of his life, they also make his life seem less amazingly teeming and protean than it is. Even a cursory summary of West’s tempestuous existence so far is exhausting to read, and by now the turmoil seems inextricably bound up in his own creative drive. It seems worth keeping front and center the relationship of creation to turbulence, disorder, and breakdown that Kanye West’s wild ride through this world embodies, perhaps, more than any other living star.