Kanye West Always Wanted You to Watch
No one could quite understand why the young producer was being followed by a cameraman. Almost everywhere Kanye West went beginning in the early 2000s — before “Through the Wire,” before “The College Dropout,” before anything, really — he was trailed by Clarence Simmons, known as Coodie, a comedian and public-access TV host from Chicago who had decided to document West’s attempts to become a successful musician.
In “Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy,” the three-part Netflix documentary that draws heavily on that footage, the camera serves two functions: It captures West at a vulnerable moment in his nascent career, when the future was anything but guaranteed. And it is also a kind of marker of success on its own. The camera’s presence forces the people West encounters to treat him just a tad more seriously, or at least to wonder if they should. In almost every encounter captured, there is a slight hiccup at the beginning, in which the other person wonders, what exactly are we doing here?
West, one of the defining figures of the last 20 years, has been a consistent innovator in music and style. But he has also long had a preternatural grasp of the mechanisms of celebrity, how success is only truly impactful if it is imprinted onto others. West believed in himself, but wouldn’t stop until he’d convinced those around him, too.
“Jeen-yuhs” is something like the demo tape of that phenomenon. It is both fascinating and obvious, eerie in the way that it foretells who West eventually would become by showing who he always has been.
West, as we understand him now, is in early bloom during the first two of the docuseries’s three parts. Driving down lower Broadway in Manhattan, he tells a journalist sitting in the back seat how he feels when others tell him he’s thriving: “I might be living your American dream but I’m nowhere near where my dream is, dog. I got aspirations.” At one point, he says, “I’m trying to get to the point where I can drop the last name off my name.” (Indeed, he is now known solely as Ye.)
Granting Simmons access was a combination of marketing savvy and also deep ego — “A little narcissistic or whatever,” West says. Nowadays, most pop superstars (and nowhere-near stars) are documented constantly for social media, but West understood the value of that labor early.
The result is a prehistory of one of the most transfixing and agonizing celebrities of the 21st century. The footage could explain to aliens what creativity on Earth looks like. We see West recovering from his 2002 car crash, going through several dental procedures, and then getting back to work and emerging with “Through the Wire,” his debut single, which would finally catapult him toward the stratosphere. The camera captures a vivid, undimmable mind at constant, stubborn work.
He asks to save the wires that held his jaw together, still bloody, for his mother, Donda. She appears throughout the film, often as a corrective force; even as West becomes more famous, he is never something other than his mother’s son. She doesn’t flinch from the lens, perhaps because the camera’s eye and that of a loving, knowing parent aren’t all that different.
West also encourages the new people he meets to live out their relationship to him on camera. When he plays Pharrell Williams “Through the Wire,” Williams becomes a willing actor, walking out of the room and down the hall, overcome with thrill. After a recording session with Jay-Z in which West talks his way onto a song, Simmons prompts Jay-Z for a quote, asking him to literalize his co-sign of West for the camera.
Not everyone plays along with West’s schemes. It’s odd to watch Scarface, one of rap music’s great philosophers, effectively pass on “Jesus Walks,” maybe the most meaningful and popular spiritual hip-hop song of all time. He also chides West for leaving his orthodontic retainers out on the countertop, a light spank from elder to child. (The retainers appear on several occasions, a symbolic embodiment of West’s still unformed persona.)
There is, perhaps surprisingly, ample footage like this — this was an era in which West was almost always the less successful person in any interaction. Note the hangdog way in which he skulks out of the Roc-A-Fella Records office after going door to door and playing music for various executives, who seem to regard him as a lovable nuisance. Given how West moves through the world now, it’s disorienting to see him, time and again, as a supplicant.
This is footage that most hagiographers would omit, but Simmons and his directing partner Chike Ozah — professionally, they’re known as Coodie & Chike — understand their subject differently. Simmons was inspired, he says in the film, by the Chicago basketball documentary “Hoop Dreams,” a film that cuts its melancholy with bolts of hope.
And much about West in the early 2000s, before Roc-A-Fella Records relented and signed him as a recording artist (rather than just a producer), is lightly tragic. When West is at an industry event with far more famous people, in search of a little validation, Simmons films him from a distance, emphasizing his relative smallness. But even this footage doesn’t feel directed so much as captured, tiny moments that in the rear view appear huge.
Cameras are not neutral — they change their subject. But while everyone lies for the camera, some people live in the camera. Throughout the film, West often appears most mindful of how history might regard him, driven by a sense that in a room full of people, the most important connection he could make was with Simmons’s lens. (See the scene in which he and Mos Def rap “Two Words,” and West appears to be staring through the camera’s aperture somewhere into the future.)
Simmons offers largely space-filling voice-over throughout the film, not an unreliable narrator so much as an uncertain one. There is either far too much or not nearly enough of him, more likely the former: The segments where he links West’s story to his own feel particularly ill-placed, a distraction that doesn’t offer context on the main subject. And some narrative choices are contrived: Too much time is given over to West’s desire to be featured in an MTV News segment spotlighting new artists. (It so happens that MTV was where Simmons and Ozah met.)
The success that Simmons had hoped to capture ended up being his termination notice — once West’s career was finally operating under its own steam, he left Simmons (and his footage) behind. That alone would have made for a compelling film. But the third segment, which is far more scattershot, consists largely of scraps that Simmons accrues over the next couple of decades, an era in which West becomes something unfamiliar to him: a world-building superstar.
This episode is less narratively satisfying and coherent than the first two, but Simmons’s indiscriminate eye and his pre-existing comfort with West end up as assets. Where in the early 2000s, Simmons had an aspirant as his subject, now he has someone who exists between superhero and autocrat, a figure who isn’t performing simply for one camera but for a world of cameras and observers.
There is a grim scene in which West is speaking with potential real estate partners, a gaggle of older white men, and tells them, “I took bipolar medication last night to have a normal conversation and turn alien to English.” He likens his treatment by the public to being drawn and quartered.
Simmons lingers for a while — this is who his subject has become, and it is as important to see as any of the clips from when he was simply an up-and-comer. But real as it is, this isn’t the West that Simmons knows, or can stomach. There’s something itchy in the camerawork, and eventually Simmons does something that doesn’t seem to come naturally: He turns the camera off.