Looking back at the 20-year career arc of any musician would be revelatory.
But when that artist is Kanye West, it’s compelling, confusing and maddening. In other words, pretty much on brand.
Those looking for salacious details about the recently rebranded Ye’s celebrity lifestyle or explosive Kardashian drama won’t find it here. Instead, “jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy” is a fascinating plunge into his relentless drive to succeed, his wavering friendships and the toll of mental illness.
Directors Clarence “Coodie” Simmons started filming Ye in 2002 to document his signing to Roc-A-Fella Records and met Chike Ozah, a producer on MTV's “You Heard It First,” shortly after.
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Their film, which premiered last month at Sundance Film Festival and arrived Wednesday on Netflix, is divided into three 90-minute acts: “Vision,” “Purpose” and “Awakening.”
Early on, Ye, now 44, says doing a documentary at the embryonic stage of his career shift from producer to rapper is “a little narcissistic.”
That self-awareness would, over the years, become clouded by hordes of enablers and adoring fans. The death of Ye’s beloved mother, Donda, caused a shift in molecules that Simmons captures with heartbreaking clarity.
“He didn’t seem like the same Kanye. We hardly ever spoke,” Simmons says in a voiceover explaining a gap in footage from 2008 to 2014. Ye’s team told the filmmaker that there was “no room” for him to accompany the superstar on his Glow in the Dark tour.
But a call from Common asking Simmons to film his 2014 Aahh! Fest in Chicago proved fortuitous: Ye was booked as a surprise guest. As much as Simmons anticipated reuniting with his friend, it wasn’t without trepidation.
“It made me nervous because I knew Kanye, but I’d never met Yeezy,” Simmons says.
The pair renewed their friendship, and in 2017, he returned to filming the superstar.
Simmons and Ozah have described “jeen-yuhs” as a film rather than a documentary. It’s a notable distinction because there are no talking-head interviews or footage other than Simmons' raw takes, aside from a few quick-cut scenes that include a Kardashian red carpet photo op and Ye’s MTV Awards disruption with Taylor Swift.
Simmons' footage, culled from 330 hours of video, is unflinching. He thought the documentary was completed at various points in Ye’s life. But there was always another chapter.
This one ends with the rapper’s idiosyncratic unveiling of his “Donda” album in Atlanta last summer, with his limp body being raised through the opening in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium roof at the end of the presentation.
Perhaps it was meant to symbolize a new beginning. But first, here are some “jeen-yuhs” highlights from the past:
Donda West's comforting relationship with Kanye is glimpsed up close
After a 20-something Ye teases his mother about the bottle of Zinfandel in her refrigerator, she notices the gold cherub hanging from his neck. “You need an angel to watch over you,” she says, flashing one of her infectious gap-toothed smiles.
The love and ease between West and her son are showcased in the most mundane moments, but it’s particularly sweet watching her rap “Like Son, Like Mother” beside him in her kitchen.
West is Ye’s compass and Simmons captures her dispensing poignant advice. “A giant looks in the mirror and sees nothing,” she tells him. “Stay on the ground, but you can be in the air at the same time.”
West died in 2007 from heart failure following complications from cosmetic surgery.
“I could tell Kanye was grieving, but he kept working, he refused to stop,” Simmons says.
Ye never talks about his mother’s death on camera, but there is a rare interaction captured with his father, Ray West. Following Ye’s admittance to a hospital for a psychological evaluation and his inflammatory 2020 presidential campaign speech about abortion, he is shown FaceTiming with his dad.
“When you go out and say things like no abortion, you know how the media’s going to be,” Ye tells his dad. “That’s a very strong Christian statement, and Christians are scrutinized and killed for our beliefs and following the word of God. And I use my voice and I won’t not use my voice.”
His father pauses. “I would just say, write your speech next time.”
Ye's friends feared he'd never rap again after shattering his jaw in a wreck
Simmons was there after Ye, having just landed a verse on Jay-Z’s track “The Bounce," crashed his car and broke his jaw in three places.
“I was afraid he’d never rap again,” Simmons says.
But, as Ye lore goes, his ambition to finish his debut album, “The College Dropout,” couldn’t be halted by having his mouth wired shut; instead, Ye had his first hit, “Through the Wire.”
Simmons’ camera accompanies the rapper to the dentist (look away, needle phobes) to have his wiring removed, but the bigger story is Ye’s capacity to continue working. Jamie Foxx, Ludacris and John Legend are enlisted to join Ye in the studio to restart the momentum behind his debut, which arrived in 2004 to massive success, including a Grammy Award for best rap album.
Ye also retreats to his Wyoming ranch, where Justin Bieber is among those in the giant garage/studio, laying down vocals and listening to Ye’s numerous soliloquies.
The toll of Ye's mental illness becomes evident
It’s apparent as the film rolls on that Ye’s medications have slowed his speech – his voice sounds deeper and more deliberate – and Simmons is aware and respectful of his friend’s challenges.
A 2020 meeting with real estate friends in the Dominican Republic turns into a diatribe, even though Ye tells them, “I took bipolar medication last night to have a normal conversation.”
But the rapper’s discourse becomes so scattered, Simmons stops filming.
“It was hard to tell how he was feeling,” Simmons says. “No matter what he was going through, he always buried himself in his work.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Netflix Kanye West 'jeen-yuhs' probes his Donda grief, mental illness