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‘jeen-yuhs’ is more than an origin story

| Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Emma Kirner | The Observer
Image source: NPR

It is no secret that Kanye West — or Ye, as he now prefers to be called — has become a bit of a controversial figure. In recent months, the rapper has taken to Instagram to (very publicly) complain about ex-wife Kim Kardashian’s relationship with Pete Davidson and to question the parenting of his two children. He appears to be struggling creatively, too: Ye’s newest album, “Donda 2,” was critically panned, with critics complaining that it is “not chiefly concerned with the music” and is a “crudely unfinished dump of songs.”

But Ye’s albums did not always feel so incomplete, nor were they always public spectacles instead of real artistic endeavors. Watching Coodie & Chike’s new documentary, “jeen-yuhs,” makes this point clear.

In a song from his 2016 album “The Life of Pablo,” Kanye West challenges listeners to “name one genius that ain’t crazy.” With this sentiment in mind, it would be easy to view Act 1 and Act 2 of “jeen-yuhs” — a documentary following Kanye’s rise to fame — as a kind of villain origin story. This is a somewhat sinister illustration of the same traits that have since been amplified to the point where the artist has been banned from the Grammys.

Sure, there are moments throughout Coodie’s wealth of footage from Ye’s time as a “rapper-producer” (not a term he would have chosen for himself) that seem eerily prescient. There are times when the rapper, still largely unknown except as someone who can make a good beat, already seems too big for his britches. This is when viewers are invited to search for traces of today’s manic West in his younger self.

But I think it would be a mistake to view the Kanye West of 2004 solely in light of the Ye we know now. In fact, the artist’s narcissism becomes an almost admirable confidence and faith in himself, a belief — one that has now, arguably, become pathological — that the things he is doing have the power to change the world. 

Watching scenes in which Donda, Ye’s now-deceased mother, reassures him or tells him that he “snapped” with a particular performance provide a possible origin for his now-inflated ego without vilifying him. In contrast, these scenes also make West seem truly human in a way that he has not in any of his recent Instagram rants.

As much as scenes illustrating Kanye’s relationship with his mother humanize him, so does some of Coodie’s other footage. In Act 1, viewers are treated to scenes in which Ye walks from room to room at Roc-A-Fella Records playing clips from “All Falls Down” in the hope of getting a record deal. People ignore him, dismiss him and usher him out of rooms. But Ye continues to advocate for himself: weaseling his way into features on Jay Z songs, a record deal, a music video for “Through the Wire” and — finally — the release of his first album.

West undergoes multiple career and personal struggles, including a devastating car crash, during which he breaks his jaw in three places. Throughout these challenges, one thing becomes clear: The Kanye West who released “The College Dropout” cared, immensely, about his music. At one point, Ye tells Coodie that he “used [the] entire album as … rehabilitation.” The songs on the album, he adds, “gave [him] life.” It’s hard not to be drawn on by this level of self-assurance, this level of drive, this grand artistic vision. 

Coodie, for his part, makes much of the Cinderella story he has been given. Through home footage from West’s early life featuring a truly charismatic subject, Coodie develops a classic story of dreams deferred but ultimately achieved. Aided by the director’s soothing narration, the tale of Ye’s rise to fame progresses incrementally without ever feeling boring. 

Ultimately, Coodie’s picture of the rapper is flawed but also enthralling. This portrayal may not explain the rapper’s current persona or give viewers a reason to absolve him of his proverbial sins. However, it certainly reminded me why I once loved Kanye — and why, against my better judgment, I love him still.

 

Title: “jeen-yuhs”

Director(s): Coodie & Chike

Watch it on: Netflix

If you like: “The College Dropout,” controversy

Shamrocks: 3.5/5

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