No artist can hype up a project like Kanye West, and the buzz around Jeen-yuhs, a docuseries chronicling Ye’s rise from the streets of Chicago to global icon, was deafening. Over two decades in the making, Clarence “Coodie” Simmons and Chike Ozah’s diaristic, fly-on-the-wall portrait of West was scooped up by Netflix for $30 million—only to have their subject, rather cheekily, demand final cut (or “be in charge of my own image”) prior to its Feb. 16 debut on the streamer. Despite his protestations, the three-part film premiered Sunday night during the virtual 2022 Sundance Film Festival, granting viewers a peek into the wild world of West.
Sadly, a peek is all you get over the course of the doc’s 4.5-hour runtime.
The story begins in 1998, as Coodie, an aspiring stand-up comic and host of the Chicago public access show Channel Zero, conducts an interview with a young West at a 1998 birthday party for Jermaine Dupri. Soft-spoken, bespectacled, and hiding in the shadows of rapper Ma$e and his Harlem World crew, West is a far cry from the paragon of shameless bravado he would soon become. A friendship forms between filmmaker and subject, and as West’s star rises, producing beats for a range of artists from Roc-A-Fella and Rawkus Records, he hires Coodie & Chike to document his every move, so convinced was he in his own eventual stardom—and they in turn hope to create the Hoop Dreams of hip-hop docs.
While it doesn’t come close to those lofty heights, Jeen-yuhs does contain plenty of inspiring and heartfelt moments. We witness West playing beats for Mos Def and Talib Kweli—Black Star—in his car; bursting into random people’s offices at Roc-A-Fella to play a demo of “All Falls Down”; getting rejected repeatedly by labels, including Roc-A-Fella, who strings him along for years in order to exploit his producing abilities; using $33,000 of his own money to bankroll the music video for breakthrough hit “Through the Wire,” because Roc-A-Fella wouldn’t allocate any resources; and watch Pharrell flee the studio with glee after hearing it for the first time, declaring him the next big thing. “Even though he was standing so close to his dreams, it still felt so far away,” says Coodie, who narrates the tale.
Along the way, West comes across as not only more sensitive than your average rapper, but more desperate for acceptance. When a former mentor releases a diss track about West, he rolls up on him in the street, and appears to be on the verge of tears. Then, he retreats into the arms of his supportive mother, Donda, who heals his wounds by rapping an early song of his she loves. The relationship between West and his mother is the beating heart of the film; as West gained more fame, the harder he clung to her. “It was like the bigger he got, the more he wanted her around,” Coodie observes, noting how his demeanor appeared to shift following her tragic passing in 2007.
In an interview with Variety, Chike described Jeen-yuhs as “a faith-based journey broken up into three acts: vision, purpose and awakening,” adding, “[West] has no control over it. He trusts us. We’re not making a biased film. We’re not trying to make a commercial for Kanye.”
That claim is pretty hard to believe after watching the docuseries. Following the release of West’s Grammy-winning debut album The College Dropout, Coodie & Chike lose access to their subject for a dozen years, reconnecting with him in 2017. By that time, however, the arrangement has changed. Instead of trailing West wherever he went, filming is mostly limited to the occasional party and/or recording session. The Kardashians aren’t so much as mentioned—or spotted—once during the entire endeavor.
At various points, the filmmakers even opt to stop filming West as he starts to spiral in order to preserve their friend’s reputation—e.g. a surreal sequence in the Dominican Republic where, during a clandestine meeting with a pair of shady-looking real estate developers, West keeps bringing the conversation back to his 5150 psychiatric hold. They decide to put the camera down after he randomly compares the blowback in the wake of the Taylor Swift incident to being pulled apart by horses. The very next day, West experienced an emotional meltdown during his campaign rally in South Carolina, lashing out against abortion through tears.
The final half hour of Jeen-yuhs captures a born-again West entering a dark headspace, with many in his camp worried that he’s manic but unwilling to speak to him about it. One of the only scenes where a smile returns to his face occurs in a car, as he watches Fox News’ Tucker Carlson compliment his anti-abortion outburst in South Carolina. “No speechwriter wrote that. And it’s a dangerous point, if you think about it. They can say they love you. They can tell you your life matters. But if they clutter your neighborhood with abortion clinics, they’re lying,” Carlson says, prompting West to turn to the camera and cheer. “This is facts, bro! He puttin’ it in context!” he exclaims. “Boom! Bap-bap-bap! We stand! We don’t kneel no more! We stand now!”
One of the scenes that lingered in my mind occurs much earlier in the film, during his days as a producer. We see West approach a young boy roaming the halls of a recording studio. He boasts to the child—who can’t be a day over 7—about the myriad hits he’s produced for Jay-Z, including “H to the Izzo.” The boy stares at him blankly, mutters “cool,” hops on his Razor Scooter and glides off as the camera lingers on West, looking crestfallen.