Note: This column discusses issues of suicide and mental health.
Last week, Netflix released the final of a three-part documentary called “Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy,” focusing on the career of Kanye West. The film was directed by Clarence “Coodie” Simmons, who began recording Kanye over 20 years ago, along with his creative partner Chike Ozah.
“Jeen-Yuhs” shows the hustle and drive that Kanye West put into not only to his craft, but into his career. Further, it accurately depicts just how complicated West’s legacy is.
The first part of the documentary goes to the very beginning of Kanye West’s career when he was a young, confident producer with braces working out of Chicago and making a name for himself within the burgeoning local hip-hop scene.
On a leap of faith in West’s talent, Simmons followed him to New York once he decided to pursue a career in rap. West quickly became popular and well-sought after as a producer for Jay-Z and many others, but had to fight for recognition as a rapper in his own right.
Before he became a legend in the field, West had to grind, spending time trying to convince others of his talent and navigating the pressures of fame from friends in Chicago who he had since surpassed. West’s hunger and persistence finally landed him a record deal with Roc-A-Fella Records. In a stellar moment, Kanye is crowned the newest member of the label during a concert in his hometown.
The second part of the trilogy shows the aftermath of Kanye’s deal. Despite reaching this level of legitimacy in the industry, Kanye still had to fight for a release date for his debut album. A near-fatal accident had broken West’s jaw in three places and the medical emergency, in addition to neglect from his label, delayed his ability to record.
After paying for record sessions and a music video himself, Roc-A-Fella finally offered support and West released “The College Dropout.” The album received numerous Grammy nominations and won album of the year in 2004.
In the final part of “Jeen-Yuhs,” things begin to take a turn.
West’s mother dies suddenly. His relationship with Simmons becomes strained. During the years of their estrangement, Simmons watched from the sidelines as West became a husband, father and rap icon. These moments, however, were coupled with controversial comments making headlines: a failed attempt at politics, a public mental health crisis and a divorce. It’s still unclear just how the story ends.
The documentary highlights so many moments over Kanye West’s decades-long career. It includes never-before-seen footage of West meeting artists like Pharrell, Mos Def and Ludacris who he would later be able to call his peers in the industry, as well as recording sessions for his first album and heartwarming moments with his late mother Donda West. The moments with his mother especially humanize West and remind viewers of his humble beginnings as a boy who just wanted to make music.
The estrangement between Simmons and West explains the lack of footage over the past decade, a time marked by a serious turn in public opinion about West. Early footage shows that public and private egotistical and obnoxious rants were not novel for West, but the accumulation of immense grief for his mother, distance from friends like Simmons, Jay-Z and fashion designer Virgil Abloh and a battle with self-harm and bipolar disorder had exacerbated Wests antics.
On the one hand, Kanye West’s ambitions have always been beyond any box he was put in. Even in the moments with his mother, it’s apparent that there has never been a limit to West’s imagination and vision for his life. His attempt to run for President with no political experience is proof of that.
No matter his goals to further his impact and legacy through music, fashion, politics or religion, Kanye West’s problem is that he struggles to adequately communicate any of his good intentions. From his infamous “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” moment in 2005 to stating that slavery was a choice, Mr. West’s legacy has become more than his music.
In the documentary, viewers see Kanye’s frustration with his intent in word and action being misconstrued or vilified in the media. In the beginning minutes of “Jeen-Yuhs,” Kanye insists he needs a translator.
All of Kanye West’s eccentrism — no matter how normalized as part of his personality — has been a sign of his continuous struggle with mental health and addiction. In the documentary, he talks about having it all — his career, wife, kids — and still feeling suicidal.
While it’s easy to be annoyed or upset by what he says or does, this struggle can’t be separated from it. We see this from Simmons himself who wrestles with whether or not to document Kanye at these moments when he seems to be in mental distress.
The internal struggles Kanye has dealt with, however, don’t justify the harm he has brought. They shouldn’t be forgotten, no matter how much we, and I include myself in this, love the old Kanye that hustled for the love of his craft and greatly impacted hip-hop music.
West refuses to grant himself time for redemption. Not long after promising to “Make America Great Again” with former president Trump and dabbling in politics himself, West’s divorce from Kim Kardashian made headlines.
Any celebrity divorce can result in publicity, but the news of Kim’s new relationship with comedian Pete Davidson triggered a whole new set of stunts by West. He has been publicly berating Davidson on social media, and begging for his wife back while simultaneously dating new women.
In a music video released just last week, a caricature of Davidson is kidnapped, decapitated and buried alive by a Kanye-like figure. It’s hard to find sympathy for West with such continued behavior.
As one of his closest friends, Simmons was the perfect narrator for the story of Kanye West. It’s clear the amount of love and admiration he had for his muse. Equally apparent is his frustration at what appears to be the downfall of a musical genius. His fans can certainly relate to those emotions.
“Jeen-Yuhs” attempts the nearly impossible task of capturing the legacy of Kanye West, a very controversial and complex figure. It’s a well-done job made incomplete, and I suspect Mr. West isn’t done with us just yet.
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