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‘jeen-yuhs’ reminds us of the Kanye West we used to love

First part of the new documentary on Netflix focuses on his early years trying to break through

Watching the first part of Netflix’s new documentary, jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy, feels like seeing footage of someone who’s long gone. A Kanye West who was constantly told “no” and had to claw his way to success. A Kanye West who was hated on by his hometown. And a Kanye West who just wanted a shot. This raw, compassionate look at West is almost enough to make you forget the troubled, infuriating supernova he’d eventually become. Almost.

The documentary, which will air in three weekly installments beginning Feb. 16, is based on 20 years of footage from one of West’s best friends, Coodie Simmons. Directed by Chike Ozah, it tracks the rap star from the point of trying to get a deal all the way to where he is now: a failed presidential candidate going through a divorce, alienating many of his longtime fans by saying slavery is “a choice,” and yet still a brilliant musician.

The documentary is based on 20 years of footage from one of Kanye West’s best friends, Coodie Simmons (left). It was directed by Chike Ozah (right).

Sundance Institute

Part one focuses on the pre-College Dropout West of 2001 to late 2002, the producer who was going door to door at Roc-A-Fella Records trying to get people to hear his demo of “All Falls Down” and practically begging for features from rappers such as Scarface (that never materialized). It’s the rags-to-riches story that’s often gotten lost in the antics.

I was introduced to West’s music right around this time. It was the end of 2002 and he’d just gotten into a car crash that nearly killed him and required him to get his jaw wired shut. To maintain momentum for his impending album (and possibly raise money for medical bills), he put out a 36-track mixtape full of unfinished songs, B-sides and freestyles called Get Well Soon. I bought the tape on a whim, having heard West’s production on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint a year earlier. What I heard was a rapper who spoke directly to me: a guy who didn’t care to talk about the gangsta rap subjects we were hearing on the radio. A soulful producer and MC who just wanted to be an everyman. I was 16, and while I was listening to the gangsta rap of Roc cohorts State Property and the creative, Afrofuturism of Outkast, West was just regular. That word feels foreign in 2022.

So watching jeen-yuhs feels like a time capsule, taking me back to that period when West’s words were gospel. What’s most revealing about the documentary is that West has done little mythmaking in his origin story: It was all pretty much true. We’d all heard the legend of West rapping for disinterested Roc executives, but to see him take out his retainer and rap his heart out as the executives he’s rapping for get distracted by guests and essentially ignore him is fascinating. When he goes home to Chicago after his name is starting to bubble and finds out that a friend dropped a diss track about him, it notarizes all of West’s claims that his own hometown hated on him when he blew up.

It’s in these slights that we see the origin of a character who would take every award snub as a personal affront, infamously interrupting Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, for example. The documentary makes sure you see him noticing slights even in his early years — like his name being misspelled for a Chicago show or how small his name appears on a song credit. He mostly complains to the camera or grits his teeth with a knowing “just you wait” at the edge of his grin.

The whole experience makes West seem relatable again — something he hasn’t been in more than a decade. We understand the instinct to want to prove doubters wrong or fire back at people who don’t want to see you shine. If I didn’t know the ending, part one of jeen-yuhs would be inspirational.

The most revealing part of the documentary — and the part that isn’t tarnished by time — comes from West’s relationship with his mother, Donda, who he’s named his previous and forthcoming album after. jeen-yuhs shows us many candid moments between mother and son, and it’s here we see the crater her absence — Donda West died in 2007 — created in his life.

One of God’s greatest gifts is a mother who believes in you unconditionally. As they relax in her house, Donda recites his amateur rap lyrics from when he was a kid. She gently pushes back at his arrogance while still telling him she believes in his greatness. When he tells her he’s going to be featured on MTV, she lends the perfect mix of surprise and assuredness that she knew such an honor was inevitable. Throughout the film, Donda is Kanye’s biggest fan. It makes you wonder who’s been reassuring him in the 15 years since she’s been gone.

I’m done trying to defend West’s antics. It’s been years since I’ve considered myself a fan. But jeen-yuhs provides a look at where Kanye West started and some of the things that still motivate him today. For people like me who loved the old Ye, it’s a reminder of the underdog genius who we wanted to win. It’s a story that makes us feel good — until we get the Twitter alert about the next Kanye West explosion.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.