Years ago, filmmaker Coodie Simmons gave up his dream of becoming a comedian to follow around a young rapper named Kanye West. The two met in 1998, when Simmons was the on-air correspondent for “Channel Zero,” a public-access show he co-created to document Chicago’s hip-hop scene. Simmons became West’s videographer soon after, and has since spent much of his life watching — and, in some ways, creating — Kanye West. His years of accumulated footage are the basis for “Jeen-yuhs,” a three-part documentary series on Netflix that charts the rapper’s dramatic (and often painful) rise. Simmons is both a narrator and a participant in the story, implicated not only by his camera work but by the fact that he was one of the first to believe in West’s mad ambitions. In this way, the series is also the document of an unusual on-and-off friendship, told over more than two decades.
The first two and a half hours of the documentary follow West not as a star, but as a fighter trying to persuade everyone to see him as such. (Through a quality you might call hubris or intuition, West prompted Simmons to start recording behind-the-scenes footage for a documentary long before his debut album was released.) The first and second episodes, subtitled “Vision” and “Purpose,” chronicle his journey from production phenom in 1998 to Grammy-winning rapper in 2005. Simmons convincingly shows the precariousness of West’s early career and the esteem of blind self that carried him through. The first episode shows the rapper arriving uninvited at the offices of Roc-A-Fella Records, hoping to be heard by anyone. (At this point, he was an unsigned producer for the label and not taken seriously as a rap prospect.) He moves from room to room, turning off the music playing and the replacing with his demo; he awkwardly raps the lyrics to what would become his single “All Falls Down”. West doesn’t get the response he expects, but that doesn’t stop him from pulling a similar stunt in the hotel room of label president Dame Dash to receive the same treatment.
The real subject of “Jeen-yuhs” is the rare, almost single-minded focus for which West has become famous. He pursues opportunity and validation at almost every turn, constantly striving to turn his freestyles into something bigger. He is often seen sitting studiously in front of a rhythm machine or soundboard, working while other people bustle in the background. Even the setbacks are incorporated into the larger scheme. In 2002, West had an accident that broke his jaw. The injury, which threatened to end his rap career, became fuel for a song called “Through the Wire.” He asks Simmons to film one of his dentist appointments – that way he can use the footage for the music video.
One of the series’ most touching developments is West’s journey to “Def Poetry Jam,” which he auditions for in an act of defiance against his indifferent record label. In his audition tape, recorded by Simmons, West raps drafts of early songs straight into the camera, his flow choppy but spirited. He becomes more poised in the weeks leading up to the show, performing an ongoing verse that rapper Mos Def co-signs. When West finally arrives on stage, performing “Self Conscious,” an a cappella rendition of the lyrics to “All Falls Down,” he appears to be a star in the making for the first time.
As West’s debut album “The College Dropout” comes together, the energy gradually begins to shift, and we see more and more people’s opinions of the rapper begin to sync up with his view of himself- same. Simmons asks celebrities what they think of West, eagerly collecting testimonials from other converts. In an endearing moment, Houston legend Scarface acknowledges West’s talent as a rapper, then berates him for removing his gumshield, which West had gently placed on the console in front of them to perform his verse. The litany of triumphs culminates when Dame Dash finally commits to West’s debut. (The executive was convinced after seeing the first showing of the “Through the Wire” video, featuring footage from the dentist’s office.)
The series never presents a cohesive theory of creative genius, nor does it make a case for West as such a figure. In a way, he posits that West’s true gift is his contagious self-belief. A few of West’s associates stuck by his side the whole time (or almost). Rhymefest, a sideman who presents his genius theories in the opening pictures (“Who are you to call yourself a genius?”), is always with him during his doomed presidential campaign. Simmons, who lost touch with West for several years, sounds like he would have done the same if he could. Other high-level characters, such as John Legend and Olskool Ice-Gre, move in and out of its orbit. Over the course of the documentary’s five and a half hours, we meet a whole list of people, including Mos Def and Pharrell Williams, whose collaboration and approval created the artist we know now. Maybe the genius isn’t a genius until people start buying into it.
Simmons finds a counterpoint to the hypemen in West’s mother, Donda. In a handful of intimate vignettes, captured in her apartment, West’s childhood home and at promotional events for his charity, she emerges as a central influence in the rapper’s life. (It’s clear that Simmons, like many, sees her death as the catalyst for the messy years that followed.) Above all, she emerges as both the source of the rapper’s confidence and a core force that keeps his confidence in check. . In one scene, Donda offers her son a prescient warning: “It’s important to remember that the giant looks in the mirror and sees nothing.”
The third and final episode of the series, titled “Awakening”, departs from the first two in tone and content. It covers a much longer period, including the six years when Simmons and West separated. It was during this time, from 2008 to 2014, that West became the biggest rapper in the world. With Simmons now an aloof viewer, like everyone else, this part of the series relies more on TV and concert footage that charts West’s tumultuous rise, a mocking montage of segments that present West as unstable – the Taylor Swift incident, President Obama’s commentary, BBC diatribe. (Simmons, for his part, notes that this is the first time West has “lost the people.”) We also learn about Simmons — the birth of his daughter, the last time he saw his father, the development of his directing career – and what he did during his years without West. Here, the work reveals itself as a story of proximity to celebrity, and not just celebrity itself.
By the time the two come together, in a meeting orchestrated by Ice-Gre, we can see that the dynamic has changed. The rapper, once desperate for outside approval, is now the only voice that matters. West barely reacts to Simmons’ attempts to engage with him, or even assess how and what he feels. The episode shows that the collaborative atmosphere, which fueled the success of “The College Dropout,” is no longer a function of West’s process. The people are still there, but there seems to be less of a community. Near the end, we see him drown out all the intrusive criticism from unseen associates as he watches Tucker Carlson endorse his chaotic 2020 presidential rally on Fox News. The dissenting voices quickly die down and you can practically see the vindication surge through the rapper’s body as he receives the exact reaction he’s been looking for.
Simmons seems at odds with the figure he helped create. He seems to find comfort, and even hope, in rediscovering his Christianity and dedicating his tenth album to his mother. But the work gets rid of any stable conclusion: it is impossible to forget that the story is not resolved, that its subject is volatile, even dangerous. By the third act, the rapper’s mental illness is not only apparent but inevitable; he becomes prone to rambling outbursts and dramatic mood swings. It’s in “Awakening” that Simmons begins cutting the camera midway through the monologue, saying he feels bad recording the rapper in such a state. This comes across as both a kindness and a disposition of evidence. One of Simmons’ latest recordings follows West in a meeting with creator Tina Frey, during which the rapper rattles off a list of completely ridiculous goals. “I just feel like this crew coming together is going to change the education, change the sanitation, change the meditation, change the way we think, the way we connect with the earth, the way we connect with God” , he begins, then the images begin to fade.