Weekender: ‘jeen-yuhs’ and the trouble with Ye

The poster for "jeen-yuhs" (2022) is pictured. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

One thing you realize as you blow through the recent Ye-focused docuseries, “jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy” (2022) is that our mercurial friend and subject can outpace any public conception of him. 

Well, that is if you keep up with the Yeezy zeitgeist — a whirlwind at best, a tornado at worst. 

As of late, Ye, who recently changed his name from Kanye West, has been doubling, tripling and quadrupling down on efforts to make his separation from socialite Kim Kardashian and torment of her rebound Pete Davidson as prolonged and unpleasant as possible. 

Ye’s often controversial actions can often nullify any empathy someone could have for him, whether the empathy was there from the start and weathered his antics or it was won back via reconciliation — perhaps an apology or a clarification or an eye-opening documentary that illuminates the more benevolent and inspiring sides of the artist and man.

This goal is not expressly written into the series’ bylaws, nor was “jeen-yuhs” made with this intent — that would constitute propaganda. Nevertheless, it fulfills that role.

The series is split into three acts, differentiated by theme. The first is called “VISION” and it details Ye’s humble beginnings, when fame was just a big dream, something he only saw on the TV screen. 

As the title card disappears, we are immediately thrown into the hip-hop scene of the late 1990s.

At rapper and producer Jermaine Dupri’s birthday party, the two foci of this documentary are introduced. The first is Clarence Ivy Simmons Jr., also known as Coodie, co-founder of “Channel Zero” (2016–18) — a public-access show documenting the rap game at the time. He runs into Ye — the documentary’s main subject, of course — at Dupri’s party, while interviewing various hip-hop acts. 

The first thing you notice about the pre-celebrity, 21-year-old Ye is a confidence that is not full-fledged in the way the general public knows it to be from 18 years of fame. There is a hint of humility in there. 

Coodie has members of a group called Harlem World introduce themselves before getting to Ye. Each one grips the microphone, giving their name and a tag, all while looking directly at the camera. Clearly, this is not their first time introducing themselves as artists. 

Then, Coodie moves toward Ye, who has been standing off to the side. He is close but separate from Harlem World. As Coodie makes some preambulatory statements, Ye shifts around awkwardly but is also eager to speak. Finally, Coodie gives him the microphone.

For about 30 seconds, Ye shouts out different people, almost like an award show acceptance speech. Even though the documentary’s narration voices over a chunk of what he says, just looking at Ye is enough to realize that there was a time where he couldn’t say he was a god and a close second to Jesus so confidently and unabashedly.

As Ye speaks, his eyes dart around, looking for approval and rarely catching the camera lens. After finding the camera, Ye slightly drops his gaze for an instant, as if he became hyper aware and self-conscious. He constantly fidgets and turns his body with little authority. His laughs are almost timid. It’s all quite subtle but shocking nonetheless, seeing the most braggadocious, self-praising pop culture icon of our times not exude coolness with a microphone in hand. Only at the end, when he finally reps his hometown Chicago, does his trademark confidence shine through. 

This interaction between Coodie and Ye, as the former describes it, would be the beginning of a brotherhood that would last for more than 20 years.” The mark of that brotherhood, for Coodie, is the intimate access to Ye’s life as he rose through the hip-hop industry. 

One of the most enjoyable aspects of “jeen-yuhs” is that it is a documentary consisting of uninterrupted raw footage, not intercut with interviews that would be wholly unnecessary for such a series. The constant barrage of relatively or completely unseen moments is pure bliss for the audience, especially the fans who finally have visuals to fill in the history they know so well. 

Moments that stand out are Ye and his posse entering the Roc-A-Fella officeshoping to get signed to the label and rapping unreleased songs directly at random employees, only to be met with indifference — and a backstage performance for no one, where legendary rapper Mos Def effortlessly drops his verse from “Two Words” (2004) and Ye follows it up with all the energy in the world, neck veins popping out, jumping up mid verse, with Mos Def watching in awe.

Throughout the first episode, we see Ye’s gradual ascent to relevancy via his production skills.

Clips of him showing off beats-for-sale to established rappers are peppered in with his own pre-release versions of songs from “The College Dropout” (2004), his iconic debut album.  

At around the 50 minute mark, Donda West is introduced. Donda was Ye’s mother and best friend, and it is made clear throughout the rest of the first episode and second episode that she played a stabilizing role in the artist’s life. She backed his vision wholeheartedly from the start and cheered him on from the sideline as his fame grew but still kept his head level. In one captivating conversation, Donda tells her son, “The giant looks in the mirror and sees nothing,” — a warning that fame can make you lose sight of yourself.

Her death in 2007 coincides with a fracture in Ye and Coodie’s relationship that sees the latter completely lose access to the artist for almost a decade. This was a period of time marked by some of Ye’s best work in “808s & Heartbreak” (2008), “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (2010), “Watch the Throne” (2011) and “Yeezus” (2013) but also his biggest scandal in the interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the VMAs. 

Ye and Coodie do not reconnect until 2016, at the rapper’s now-immortalized listening party for “The Life of Pablo” (2016). Though most of the time period post-Donda’s death could be described as a decline in Ye’s well-being, this album and its subsequent tour was the beginning of a sharp descent that is still unfolding. 

The third and final episode of the documentary shows parts of the few bright spots between 2016 and today — the making of “KIDS SEE GHOSTS” (2018) and the formation of his Sunday Service program — but ultimately centers on Ye’s awakening. This rebirth refers to many changes in Ye’s behavior but overall describes his shift from just music to other cultural endeavors — fashion, business and politics, mainly.

Coodie captures this transformation with little documentarian judgment, but there is an air of concern present. Coodie shows Ye discussing his own mental health with some real estate investors and how he feels the media has persecuted him ever since the Taylor Swift incident. Ye’s words and ideas verge on frantic, which is why Coodie cuts the camera

The series ends with a relative peak in the “Donda” (2021) listening parties, presumably the most recent footage Coodie got before entering the final editing process for the documentary.

Coodie seems to hope that the Ye he knew before the fame and flashing lights, the Ye of the first two episodes of “jeen-yuhs,” might reappear. Or, at the very least, he hopes that Ye would get a mirror big enough for a giant.

But now, checking in on Ye in 2022, the picture isn’t all that pretty, and it isn’t getting better either.

He seems to have graduated from inflammatory remarks to artistic depictions of murdering his ex-wife’s boyfriend. Ye defends himself, saying his art is just art. But the big picture is an obsession and an inability to let go, not to mention hypocrisy as he has dated multiple women since the split. 

The hope from the “Donda” album era is no longer there. Ye has once again outpaced the public’s conception of him

Whatever empathy and understanding viewers might feel for the artist thanks to “jeen-yuhs” is unlikely to last long.