This review of “jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy” was first published on Jan. 23, following its premiere at Sundance 2022.
It isn’t necessary to be a Kanye West fan to appreciate or enjoy the new three-part Netflix documentary “jeen-yuhs” — and these days it’s more understandable if you aren’t — but it helps.
No one has done more in the last several years to harm West’s reputation than West himself, but it will undoubtedly help the viewing experience to possess a degree of admiration for his accomplishments — or even just an ounce of empathy for his complex, contradictory, polarizing humanity — especially since co-directors Coodie and Chike do a more than serviceable job reminding their potential audience that for better or worse, just like everyone else, West is some mother’s son.
The first chapter of “jeen-yuhs,” “Act 1: Vision,” showcases the intimacy of the filmmakers’ connection to West and provides a context for documenting his journey. But even if an affection for their subject sometimes overwhelms their instincts as storytellers (and especially editors), the resulting film remains an unprecedented look inside formative moments from the life and career of one of the biggest and most influential artists in the world today.
Coodie, born Clarence Simmons Jr., was the host of Chicago cable access show “Channel Zero” (named after Public Enemy’s “She Watch Channel Zero”) in the 1990s when he met West, an ambitious hip-hop producer venerated among local MCs who desperately wanted to get out from behind the mixing board and become an artist in his own right. At the time, such dreams were virtually impossible to make a reality within the hip-hop community, but Coodie saw West’s potential as a star, so he decided to keep his camera trained on the young artist’s journey, from his mother Donda’s kitchen to recording studios where he would make hits for Scarface, Jay-Z, Mos Def and others.
“Vision” also simultaneously charts the evolution of Chicago hip-hop at a time when New York and California were the two destinations from which rap artists were taken most seriously. Coodie captures seemingly every Chicago artist that went on to break nationally, from Twista to Common to Rhymefest — but what’s interesting is how virtually all of them sing West’s praises rather than their own. Mind you, it’s a documentary about him, so of course their comments have been either pared down to spotlight West’s prodigious impact on that scene or scrubbed of braggadocio about themselves. Still, it’s immediately clear that Kanye possessed something that set him apart from his contemporaries, even as he tried to keep pace with their successes (or turn theirs, with his beats, to his own, with his rhymes).
The fact that the chapter opens with West rapping at a villa in the Dominican Republic in 2020 suggests that the documentary will trace the artist from his career’s infancy to him at his most culturally irritating, but by the end of “Vision,” West has barely earned a record deal. That’s an intriguing choice for viewers that may be on the fence about whether or not to continue, but it’s not one that entirely serves “jeen-yuhs” as a complete entity.
It’s certainly fascinating to watch West be one of a scrum of people shuffling through a label-hosted birthday party for Jay-Z, waiting for his opportunity to shake the hand of the rapper for whom he produced “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).” And it’s almost sad to see West be the “guy behind the guy,” going from office to office in Def Jam performing “All Falls Down” in a desperate effort to convince someone to sign him, or even advocate for him, knowing what we now know about his presence in modern music.
But where Coodie and Chike (the latter of whom wasn’t really a part of the rapper’s life until Coodie met him at MTV in 2002) excel at humanizing West is in the juxtaposition of that earnest hustle with his mother’s advocacy for him — shown in her knowledge of his lyrics, her indefatigable belief in his success — and her adorably maternal nurturing of him as he navigates a frequently treacherous business. You get to understand his character, and where it came from — at the beginning, a “fake it ‘til you make it” attitude instilled by Mama, reinforced by her guidance, and propelled towards success by determination and talent. At that point in his life, that talent was still raw. But in retrospect, it seems entirely undeniable.
Does the world need a seven-hour documentary about Kanye West? Only Acts II and III will tell us for sure. But “jeen-yuhs” absolutely gives his fans and critics alike a look at the artist unlike any other they have seen before. That doesn’t mean the perspective isn’t generous, or even complimentary. Coodie’s voiceover describing his feelings for the young rapper (from the moment they met) is nothing but kind, encouraging, patient and compassionate.
But if you’re a ‘90s hip-hop fan looking for a little unvarnished truth about the industry at that time, or a sucker for stories about artistic struggle, or, yeah, a Kanye West fan, this certainly delivers the goods and then some. West may not have been able to stick the landing on his own artistic growth, and the documentary in toto may not be able to either, but “jeen-yuhs” is at least as full of promise as its subject was at the very beginning, and that makes it more than worth exploring.
“jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy,” Act I premieres on Netflix Feb. 16.