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Kanye West, Jeen-Yuhs
Kanye West, Jeen-YuhsCourtesy of Netflix

Yes, we miss the old Kanye – but how much has he really changed?

Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy offers an intimate look at how the rapper built his breakthrough persona, and how it lead to his public fall from grace

It’s easy to watch footage of a young Kanye West in Chicago and New York – the formative years captured in the first third of jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy – and see the aspiring rapper as a whole different person to the Ye we know today. Far from shutting down entire stadiums for cultish performances in a Balenciaga mask, this Kanye is constantly hustling to have his face seen in the right crowds, looking for a way to break out of the soul-sampling producer persona that made his name in the mid-90s, and establish a reputation as an MC in his own right. Fame and fortune are just a faint glimmer on the horizon. Could it be a mirage? At this point, he has a long way to go to find out, but stakes his life on a dream that few can hope to achieve: not just stardom, but the kind of stardom that allows a person to drop their last name.

From the beginning of jeen-yuhs, however, there’s also no shortage of hints about the person he would become, and how exactly he got there over the course of a trailblazing 20-year career. In fact, one of these moments occurs during his very first meeting with director Coodie Simmons, a brief interview at record producer Jermaine Dupri’s birthday party in 1998. Not content to speak into the mic like everyone else, 21-year-old Kanye snatches it for himself, delivering a rambling monologue that includes a shoutout to Chi-Town and his contemporaries as an up-and-coming producer. Seeing this, it’s hard not to think of the Kanye that jumped up on the stage at the 2009 VMAs, telling Taylor Swift: “Imma let you finish but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time.” Kanye grabs the mic. Kanye interrupts. It’s what he does.

Then there’s another jeen-yuhs scene that occurs in the wake of his long-awaited record deal with Roc-A-Fella, which sees the emerging rapper musing on his upcoming debut album. “Hopefully with God’s blessing,” he says, talking candidly into Simmons’ camera, “There shouldn’t be a way for me to lose, really.” In the film, this line is delivered with a sense of hope but also uncertainty (uncertain, at least, compared to the bold, verging on blasphemous claims he makes in more recent interviews with the likes of Zane Lowe or Charlamagne tha God). Again, though, the fundamental ideas have remained a constant throughout the artist’s career: the ambition tipping into egomania, the complicated faith in God and – for better or for worse – in himself, as a modern-day prophet.

But if Kanye West hasn’t changed as much as we think, then how did he go from the charismatic kid wearing “pink-ass polos with a fuckin’ backpack”, unafraid to call out George W Bush’s racism on national TV, to the billionaire who endorses Donald Trump’s “dragon energy” and platforms right-wing commentators such as Candace Owens? Fortunately, jeen-yuhs embraces that contradiction, rather than shying away from it.

Mining hours of footage for act one of the Netflix documentary, Simmons and longtime creative partner Chike Ozah chart the ups and downs of Kanye’s pre-College Dropout career with an eye for intimate details. His late mother – Donda, the English professor whose name titled his latest album – raps her son’s lyrics back to him in her Chicago apartment. Later, he tells her about his breakthrough spot on MTV’s You Hear It First, asking if she can believe it’s really going to happen. “I can believe it,” she replies, “the way you are.”

Of course, Simmons also sees something special in Kanye West – that’s why the filmmaker took a “leap of faith” to follow the unsigned musician to NYC, already envisioning the documentary that would take another two decades to complete. The music industry is a different story, though. When Kanye makes a surprise visit to the Roc-A-Fella offices, film crew in tow, it plays out like a tragicomedy. Confidently blasting the College Dropout track “All Falls Down” from any stereo he can get his hands on, he’s met with uncomfortable silence and sympathetic stares from various executives and their assistants, ultimately leaving dejected and empty-handed.

Watching in 2022, of course, we know this isn’t the end. Kanye will continue pushing for what he perceives as his rightful place at Roc-A-Fella, partly propelled by the faith of Donda and his inner circle, and the belief that he has God’s blessing. We also know how this will end up, as documented in the latter thirds of jeen-yuhs: Kanye declaring “I Am A God” on Yeezus, embarking on an ill-fated presidential campaign, flipping between straight-up gospel music and harmful social media tirades as he struggles with his mental health.

On the one hand, jeen-yuhs makes clear that Kanye was unnaturally talented, but that it was his blind ambition, unquestioning faith, and network of fervent supporters (the likes of Donda and Coodie, but also rap idols such as Jay-Z, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Scarface) that finally granted him the recognition he deserved. Without these elements of his persona, we might not even know his name today, never mind his game-changing discography.

On the other hand, these traits once vital to his acceptance in the music industry have driven many of Ye’s public controversies in recent years, amplified by unimaginable wealth, endless exposure, and mental health battles that have played out in the public eye. Maybe the saddest part of the story is that Ye today isn’t that much different from the Kanye West who was on the verge of success in NYC – but when you’re a billionaire artist with legions of fans at your back, your eccentricities and showbiz theatrics are going to play out in a very different way.