jeen-yuhs is a harrowing, deeply personal look at Kanye’s early years, celebrating the genius of both an artist and those who helped him build his platform.
Its first chapter landing on Netflix in the midst of a particularly contentious media blitz with a new album promised in just a week’s time, jeen-yuhs, the 4.5-hour nonfiction chronicle of Kanye West’s earliest triumphs and recent, divisive reinventions arrives at a moment when some fans are once again chirping “enough is enough!” Regardless, at least ⅔ of this 3-part documentary event (being released over the course of three weeks, but worth consuming all at once) is satisfying nostalgia for fans lapsed or devoted, offering an ultra-thorough account of Ye’s early years with Roc-A-Fella up through their release of his first album The College Dropout. Being positioned as the definitive Kanye doc, jeen-yuhs probably really only owns that title by default, with directors Chike Ozah and Coodie pursuing a different, more intimate angle in actuality.
Created from the massive archive of footage this filmmaking duo has cultivated since the late ’90s, jeen-yuhs’s legitimacy (briefly called into question by Ye on Instagram, though he since attended the L.A. premiere) comes from the breadth of their collection, amassed thanks to their proximity to the subject. Friends since young adulthood when Coodie and Chike hosted regionally famous hip hop/comedy-centric public access show Channel Zero and West was becoming one of the most sought after producers in Chicago, the trio had the immense foresight to pursue a Hoop Dreams-type documentary with the rap artist at its center, just as he was departing their hometown for NYC. The three kept close for the next several years, and jeen-yuhs’s first two chapters are made up of the project’s most revealing footage, capturing West at a specifically vulnerable moment in his career, desperate to impress execs, hustling his records, and getting strung along by a skeptical Dame Dash. In this way, jeen-yuhs proves an essential document of both Ye’s history and the genre’s, Coodie and Chike granted unique access to the Roc-A-Fella offices and parties at the company’s arguable peak, embedded in the heart of the NYC rap scene at the exact moment it was running the pop music industry.
Audaciously, Coodie also intertwines his own story with the larger Kanye biography, a potentially controversial choice made credible by his proximity to the West family and pre-fame support. It’s also a choice presumably made in anticipation of there being a large gap in their footage archive, the trio parting ways on uncomfortable terms in the wake of Donda West’s passing, not reconnecting until his health scares circa The Life of Pablo tour. Coodie’s narrative takes up this void, retroactively recasting the director and narrator (despite Ye’s demands for Drake to take on this duty) as a Llewyn Davis-esque jeen-yuhs himself, riding out his own fulfilling journey in the shadow of one of the biggest artists in the world. Which isn’t to say jeen-yuhs is colored by bitterness; if anything, its third and final chapter attempts the challenge of addressing the current-day tumult as even-handedly as possible, celebrating Jesus is King and the Sunday Services, while expressing empathy and concern for a longtime friend clearly still grieving the loss of his mother and heavily medicated. Indeed, the transformation that occurs across jeen-yuhs‘s 4.5 hours is jarring, even a bit upsetting, all the more so because of the missing years worth of footage, but Coodie and Chike are careful in their handling of this material, and use much of it as an opportunity to celebrate the life of Donda West and the beautiful bond she had with her son. Those anticipating a complete portrait of the artist may feel duped, but it’s hard to imagine anyone ever being able to fully sum up a creator so eclectic and challenging; jeen-yuhs makes the smart call of concentrating on a facet, memorializing the genius of Kanye West in the face of an unfriendly industry, and the genius of those who helped build him his platform.
You can currently stream Act 1 of Coodie & Chike’s jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy on Netflix, with Acts 2 and 3 releasing over the next two weeks.