Given its title (in case you didn’t get it, it’s pronounced gen-ius) and subject matter, you would think jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy would consist of nothing but hero worship, obliging audiences to exalt themselves before the almighty altar of Ye.
There’s definitely a fair amount of that in this three-part, 280-minute-long Netflix documentary, the first installment of which premiered online at the Sundance Film Festival. But there’s also, at least for half its running time, a fairly lucid and endearing portrait of the artist as a young Yeezy trying to make it as a rap superstar. That he didn’t do it easily, and nearly didn’t do it at all, is more of a testament to his perseverance and infallible ego than it is to his talent, which is there from the get-go.
jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy
More for Yeezy lovers than haters.
Directed by Chike Ozah and longtime West chronicler Clarence “Coodie” Simmons, who’s been filming the rapper on and off for the past two decades, jeen-yuhs offers a front row look at what it takes to thrive in the cutthroat climate of the hip-hop biz, and the burden it places on those at the top to stay relevant. If this were a Biblical parable (let’s call it The Gospel According to Saint Pablo) then it would be about a gifted young man whose drive for success was so prodigious that it eventually drove him mad — the madness taking the form of numerous onstage incursions at the Grammy Awards, online and televised rants, and a run for U.S. president in 2020.
This is not to mock Kanye’s legitimate mental health issues, which Simmons, who narrates his own footage as both a caring friend and admirer, doesn’t shy away from. But when you witness how hard West hustled to be taken seriously as a rapper in his early days, how many doors were slammed in his face and how, despite a car crash that left his jaw broken in three places, he managed to complete his knockout debut album, The College Dropout, you realize that all of this can take a toll on your soul.
Divided into three 90-minute “acts” modestly titled “VISION,” “PURPOSE” and “AWAKENING,” the film very much mimics Yeezy’s career in that it’s impressive, then nearly exhilarating, only to grow exhausting and a bit insufferable in its final sections. The best parts are clearly those, set roughly between 2001 and 2004, where Simmons was granted unlimited access to West, following the up-and-coming rap producer from Chicago to New York as he evolved into a serious player in the game.
By then, Kanye had already blown up as the virtuoso young beatmaker behind half of Jay-Z’s classic 2001 album The Blueprint, as well as tracks by East Coast stalwarts like Scarface, Cam’ron, Taleb Kweli, Beanie Sigel and Lil’ Kim. But he had bigger plans for himself than to sit in front of a mixing board: He wanted to be the next Jay-Z.
The problem is that nobody but Kanye — and his wise, adoring mother Donda, whose presence in the film provides a breath of warmth and humor — believed in him. “You’re brilliant, but Jay-Z is a genius,” one friend tells him. “He really doesn’t fit in with the street image,” is another reproach we hear often, especially from the folks at Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella records label, where Kanye is desperate to get signed.
There’s perhaps no more telling scene in all of jeen-yuhs than the one in “VISION” where Simmons trails West, then aged 21, after he decides to crash the Roc-A-Fella headquarters in Manhattan, going from office to office to play his demos as a solo artist. It’s a stunt that fails miserably, the record company execs all but indifferent to his music, and Kanye has no choice but to take back his CD and walk out in defeat.
The scene is telling because it shows how he’d stop at nothing to be heard — how humiliation wasn’t a word in his rhyme book. Forcing his way through the front, back and side doors of Roc-A-Fella not as a producer but as a legit MC, he eventually managed to get signed. In the two years that followed, the label dilly-dallied in releasing his first album, pushing Kanye to try even more stunts, including cutting a track with his mouth in shambles after the car accident, and self-financing his first music video (“Through the Wire,” directed by Simmons and Ozah). In 2004, Roc-A-Fella finally released The College Dropout to universal acclaim (four-times platinum, Grammy for Best Rap Album), sealing Ye’s reputation by the time “PURPOSE” is over.
Afterwards, the documentary charts a rather steady and unfortunate course from hip-hop superstardom to donning a MAGA hat and raving about the evils of abortion. This is partially because West pretty much cut Simmons out of his life after his early successes, working with bigger-name directors for his videos and surrounding himself with what seems like an entourage of Ye-sayers, not to mention the Kardashians.
And so while the film’s first two acts give us ample time in the studio to watch the jeen-yuhs at work — a highlight is a recording session with Jay-Z for his The Blueprint 2 track “The Bounce,” which Kanye is given a verse on — we never get to see the making of breakthrough albums like 808s & Heartbreak or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, where West boldly took hip-hop to places it had never been before.
The jump in the last act, “AWAKENING,” from rap phenomenon to music-and-fashion mogul bloated on meds is not always easy to sit through, and Simmons is genuinely concerned enough about his old Chi-town buddy to come running with his HD cam whenever he calls. Covering the period from 2005 to the present, the final installment charts Kanye’s various rises and falls via montage sequences that fill in all the gaps, making it less compelling than the years where Simmons captured things firsthand.
After watching Yeezy’s many antics, meltdowns and late embrace of Jesus as his savior, it’s hard to say what exactly drove him over the edge at some point, and the directors seems to grapple with this conundrum. The sudden death in 2007 of Donda, who was a major pillar in her son’s life, feels like one likely reason. Another may be the vast quantities of self-confidence and creative chutzpah he needed to keep taking his career further and higher: Not unlike the mythic phoenix, Kanye seems to be constantly engulfed by his own flames, only to be reborn over and over again.
This is certainly not the first time that’s happened in the history of music or art, and geniuses like Mozart or Michelangelo — men whom Ye has no doubt compared himself to — hit plenty of highs and lows in their creative and private lives. The difference is there wasn’t someone around to record it all, and in that sense jeen-yuhs takes its place next to other recent bio-docs, such as Asif Kapadia’s Amy, that track an artist’s every move as they reach untold heights and then inevitably fall from grace.
Surely, not everyone will want to spend four and a half hours riding Ye’s rollercoaster, and if you don’t care about his musical acumen, which is on ample display here, then you probably shouldn’t tune in. But for hip-hop heads there’s a lot to embrace — the scene where West and Mos Def perform an impromptu duet is another high point — provided you’re willing to deal with all the ego-tripping.
It’s perhaps best to heed what Yeezy says early on in the film about one of his many bouts of creative inspiration, in what feels like a fleeting moment of self-awareness: “It’s a little narcissistic or whatever, but fuck it.”