In the cold open of “act iii: AWAKENING,” the third episode of the Netflix documentary surrounding rapper Kanye West’s rise to fame, Ye converses with Chicago rapper Rhymefest about an argument they had engaged in off-camera. The two sit in the studio after playing one of Ye’s demo tapes and discuss his self proclamation as a genius. Rhymefest explains his stance: “Who are you to call yourself a genius? It’s for other people to look at you and say ‘that man’s a genius.’ It take time, man.”
The year is 2002, long before Ye’s first solo smash single “Through the Wire” (2003) or his debut album “The College Dropout” (2004) would be released to mass critical and commercial acclaim. Throughout the trilogy, Ye proves to be a living antithesis to the idea that external perspectives could shape the parameters of his creative genius.
With a runtime of over four hours, “jeen-yuhs” is split into three episodic retellings of Ye’s come-up and the making of “The College Dropout.” Filmmaker Coodie Simmons Jr. is credited as the writer, director and cinematographer of the documentary. He grew up in Chicago and began working as a stand up comedian in 1995 before becoming a correspondent for the public-access show “Channel Zero” throughout the late 1990s. The film largely takes on his perspective, narrating his journey as a TV host turned documentarian as he develops a close working relationship with Kanye West, then known only as an in-demand producer in the hip-hop industry.
“act i: VISION” introduces the limited exposure of Chicago-based emcees in years past. Ye developed his craft chopping up classic soul records and implementing crisp drums, a sound not commonly associated with hyper-masculine rap personas at the time. Even before the industry knew his name or respected his artwork, Ye had the ambition to represent his city as the next incoming entertainer. Coodie describes the faith he had in then 19-year-old Kanye West, a contributing factor urging him to document the countless hours Ye spent in the studio.
The common thread along the first years of his career is how quickly people counted out the Chicago native as a serious rapper. He played his first demo for “All Falls Down” (2004) in what Coodie describes as a “bum-rush” of Def Jam Records to garner attention for Ye’s skills beyond producing. Not only are the label executives unimpressed with his work, the documentary displays more than one occurrence of resentment toward having a cameraman follow him around as well. To them, it seemed to be an uncalled for gesture rooted in narcissism. These experiences undoubtedly pushed Ye to advocate unabashedly for himself along every turn of his career.
Ye’s mother, Donda West, embedded confidence in him. She raised him largely on her own, providing stability and comfort well into his adulthood. Words can hardly describe the deep bond the two shared. When his same ambitions were viewed as less than plausible to the world around him, Donda could offer words of encouragement and wisdom to ground him. Under her guidance, there was little he believed he would not accomplish. Her death marked a turning point between the “old Kanye” and the Ye of today.
Beyond the string of accolades that came with Ye’s eventual success, “jeen-yuhs” humanizes the man who would become the face of high fashion, rap and (for better or worse) the highs and lows of navigating mental health. From hustling in Chicago to becoming a worldwide public figure, Ye has the unique experience of his personal struggles making national headlines. His access to social media has initiated public discourse around his actions time and time again.
He embodies that multiple truths can exist simultaneously. While he deserves extensions of grace from the people who consume his art, the heavy trauma he experiences as a Black man cannot be the basis of justification for inflicting violence on others. Most recently, Ye has taken the legal procedures which will finalize a divorce from his wife, Kim Kardashian, and determine custody agreements over his children to social media. As the events within his own life unfold and as Ye strives to continue breaking beyond every systemic barrier placed on Black creatives, there are crucial moments made prominent in the documentary where mental health should have taken precedence over his career.
The “grind ’til you’ve got it” culture embedded into making dreams a reality in corporate America is both the reason Kanye has been able to create an empire for himself and the largest barrier holding him back from managing the disorders of his mind. To what extent is it his responsibility to manage the views other people have about him? How does a hyper-visible figure find balance in the dissonance of popularity? Only a creative genius could create conversation on such a scale. “jeen-yuhs” acts as a reminder that the magnitude of “Kanye West” can hardly be contained.
Verdict: “jeen-yuhs” in its entirety is more than worth tuning into. It serves as a time capsule for a time many of Ye’s fans were too young to fully experience for themselves and platforms the self-advocacy that comes with believing in your art.