The first thing to know about the new, three-part Netflix documentary Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy is that its subject would rather you not watch it. Back in January, Kanye West made it clear that he is not happy with the film being released in its current state, taking to Instagram to declare, “I must get final edit and approval on this doc before it releases on Netflix … Open the edit room immediately so I can be in charge of my own image.”
At the time of this writing, Netflix has not acquiesced to this, and it shouldn’t, because Jeen-Yuhs is an extraordinary film in a number of ways, a moving, challenging work of deep and unflinching care. Jeen-Yuhs is a film by Coodie & Chike, the accomplished directing team who made West’s 2003 MTV breakout “Through the Wire” as well as the 2012 documentary Benji, about the late Chicago basketball prodigy Ben Wilson. Mostly shot by Clarence “Coodie” Simmons (who also narrates the film) over the course of more than 20 years, Jeen-Yuhs begins in the late 1990s, with West as an up-and-coming producer making tracks for the likes of Foxy Brown and Harlem World, and “ends” in 2020, amid West’s chaotic run for the presidency of the United States.
The intimacy of this footage is frequently astonishing and calls to mind classic vérité music films like Don’t Look Back and Gimme Shelter, movies made in an era when rock stars hadn’t yet begun to exert outsize control over their on-screen depictions. Most of the first two-thirds of Jeen-Yuhs takes place in the early 2000s, prior to West’s breakout success with 2004’s The College Dropout. (Part 2 ends at the 2005 Grammys, when Dropout was nominated for Album of the Year and won Best Rap Album.) Watching this material feels a bit like Peter Jackson’s Get Back in reverse, where instead of seeing the most famous band of the 20th century in a slow state of dissolution, we are seeing the most famous musician of the 21st in the long moment before his ascendance.
These parts of Jeen-Yuhs offer a feast of behind-the-scenes glimpses of turn-of-the-21st-century hip-hop and will surely trigger the nostalgia centers of a generation of rap fans. Here’s Kanye playing tracks in a car for Mos Def and Talib Kweli; here’s Kanye with Just Blaze in the Roc-A-Fella office lobby; here’s Kanye bringing his mother to Def Poetry Jam, where he’ll perform an early, a cappella version of “All Falls Down”; here’s Kanye playing an early mix of “Through the Wire” for an awestruck Pharrell Williams. A brief scene of West mixing The College Dropout is more revelatory than anything you’ll see in most recent music docs, as is a gorgeous montage devoted to the album’s now-iconic cover shoot.
Jeen-Yuhs is often most compelling in documenting the considerable struggle that West went through prior to becoming the biggest musical star in the world. For a lot of casual pop fans in 2004, West’s ascendance felt like it happened overnight, the buzz around The College Dropout so deafening in the run-up to its release that its world-conquering success seemed preordained. But despite having ascended to the A-list as a producer by 2001, when he produced several tracks on Jay-Z’s instant classic The Blueprint, as an aspiring MC, West experienced years of disinterest and rejection. Even once Roc-A-Fella finally signed him to a solo deal, West had to fight tooth and nail to get the label to take him seriously. (Jeen-Yuhs features a number of scenes of label co-founder Damon Dash looking either bored or annoyed as Kanye all but grovels for the label head’s attention.)
The College Dropout turned 18 on Feb. 10, meaning that there’s a whole generation of music fans with little to no memory of a time when Kanye West wasn’t one of the most well-known and overexposed humans on Earth. But West’s explosion into stardom was pretty unusual for rap at the time, and Jeen-Yuhs does a terrific job capturing this context as well. There had been other producers who’d become hugely successful rappers—Dr. Dre most prominently—but there hadn’t been many, and Dre’s rapping was always understood to be a secondary interest. West could actually really rap—he was never a pantheon-level MC by any stretch, but he wasn’t replacement-level either, especially not in those early years. (A 2002 performance of “Two Words,” captured backstage at a Mos Def show and included in Part 1 of Jeen-Yuhs, is startlingly good.)
And of course there was the disarming and even nerdy middle-classness of it all, the guy with an English professor for a mom who rocked backpacks onstage and often dressed like he was trying to impress some girl’s father. For listeners who grew up on 1990s hip-hop, West’s success felt like an overdue commercial triumph for the more Bohemian corners of the music. Indeed, there are multiple times in Jeen-Yuhs when a young Kanye’s music is offhandedly likened to A Tribe Called Quest’s. (The film also chronicles West’s rejection by Rawkus Records, the premiere “alternative” rap label of the era, a dizzying fork-in-the-road moment for hip-hop history on a few levels.)
The most emotionally affecting scenes of Jeen-Yuhs are the ones with West and his late mother, Donda, who comes off here as an almost superhuman fount of maternal love and encouragement. And of course West himself eagerly plays the part of the doted-upon child, constantly seeking his mother’s affirmation and approval, knowing that she will unfailingly provide it. The love and admiration in their eyes when one looks at the other is unmistakable and totally disarming. (Armchair Freudians might also argue that West’s galactic self-confidence, which has at times been both his greatest asset and his greatest weakness, is as much a product of nurture as nature.)
All of the above unfolds in the movie’s first two parts, but the film’s third part will likely be its most discussed. As West ascends to unimaginable levels of fame, his relationship with Coodie grows more distant, and at times more strained. Then, in 2017, West brings Coodie back into the fold, and he’s once again granted unfettered access to film West while he’s on tour, while he’s working on his fashion line, while he’s recording in Wyoming, and, perhaps most notably, while he is experiencing a prolonged series of mental health crises.
I found these scenes to be difficult to watch, to put it mildly. Some viewers may find them lurid or even exploitative (they are presumably the root of West’s own dissatisfaction with the film), and more than once Coodie turns off the camera in the midst of an episode, clearly no longer comfortable with what his lens is capturing. I found myself wrestling repeatedly with the question of whether these sequences crossed ethical lines, and I’m still not sure I know the answer. Ultimately I think it’s for viewers to determine on their own.
That said, there are at least two compelling arguments for these scenes being included in the film. One is that Jeen-Yuhs, while a story about Kanye West, is not only Kanye West’s story—it’s also Coodie’s own. As the film’s narration freely admits, Coodie’s entire career has been defined at least in part by his relationship with West, and even as we see the two men grow apart, experiencing fatherhood, loss of their own parents, and other rites of passage, that bond endures. There is no doubt that the scenes in question are a crucial chapter of the two men’s relationship, critical to both where it’s been and where it is. Including them is an act of honesty.
But there’s also a way that watching this footage forces us to reflect on how the media and the broader public have dealt with this chapter of West’s fame. Interspliced with this footage are callous jokes from late-night monologues, talk-show hosts wondering if West has gone to “the sunken place,” all manner of people treating an obvious mental health crisis like it’s a stunt, or worse, a comeuppance. (The fact that the vast majority of these people are white compounds the discomfort.) In recent years, our culture has become more humane in the way we talk about mental health, but we’re still most comfortable extending our sympathy to people who behave in comfortably sympathetic ways.
Ultimately Jeen-Yuhs’ greatest triumph is in humanizing a figure who’s often resisted such efforts, for better and worse. Regardless of how you feel about West as a public figure, his impact on 21st-century pop is impossible to dispute, even if it might now be mostly in the rearview. West hasn’t made a great album since 2016’s The Life of Pablo, but even if he never makes another, that’s still a 12-year span when he was probably the most critically acclaimed and culturally significant musician on Earth. That’s a run for the ages; I don’t expect to hear anything like it again in my lifetime. Jeen-Yuhs reminds us that, despite reports to the contrary, it wasn’t the work of a god, but a person.