Written by Leah Sinclair
The first part of the documentary, which premiered 16 February, looks back on the early years of Kanye West’s career – and it proves that while his circumstances have changed, his ego, self-belief and outspoken nature have always remained the same.
Where does one begin with Kanye West? Really, where does one start to describe arguably the most polarising, outlandish, frustrating yet fascinating cultural figure of our time?
Better yet, how does one document his entire journey from the humble beginnings as a rising producer to becoming the richest Black man in US history?
He’s proclaimed himself as “Shakespeare in the flesh”, Walt Disney and Warhol and often told us (and, more specifically, Sway) “that we don’t have the answers” as we attempt to unravel the things he has said and done over the years.
And while he is famed for his musical talents both behind the scenes and on stage, along with his skills in fashion and design, his words have often become the thing most synonymous with Kanye – for better or for worse.
Whether it was his sociocultural defining “Bush doesn’t like Black people” moment of 2005, to the “Taylor, I’m gonna let you finish” saga of 2009 to the disappointing “slavery was a choice” comment of 2018 – his use of words to describe himself, situations around him and his thoughts (many of which are questionable) have always been a key element of the puzzle that is Kanye West.
And while many of his former fans have reminisced about the “old Kanye” days, the Netflix documentary Jeen-Yuhs – a trilogy on the life and mind of the renaissance man – proves that while his music, style and circumstances may have changed, the way he speaks about himself and his success has remained the same – even today.
This is clearly seen in the first episode of the docu-series, which premiered on 16 February, and retraced Kanye’s start in the music industry as a sought after music producer, working with everyone from Lil Kim to Jay-Z, but with a big dream to not produce for the biggest rappers but to become one of them.
And while I call it his big dream, it really wasn’t. It was merely a matter of time and Kanye knew it. These are the scenes that prove it.
His ego hasn’t changed at all
Kanye is known for his ego – something which has been documented over the years and is pretty incomparable to most. In a society that often celebrates bashfulness and minimising your own accomplishments, it’s actually mind-boggling how Kanye has always been the antithesis of this and it’s clearly demonstrated throughout the documentary.
In the docu-series, directed by Clarence “Coodie” Simmons and Chike Ozah (Coodie first met Kanye in 2002 and started to record his rise to fame), a scene from the mid-2000s shows Kanye discussing his work mentality and mentions that filming the documentary is kind of “narcissistic”.
“If it weren’t for being in this environment with Just Blaze in the studio I wouldn’t be able to have my beats as good as they are because this n*gga is making three beats a day. A lot of times the Chicago mentality is to do a little work and sit back and talk about how good that work you did in the past was, even by me doing this documentary, it’s a little narcissistic or whatever but fuck it”.
Narcissism is a word spectators often use in relation to Kanye (in fact his mother even warns him not to be “too arrogant” in footage from the doc) – but by filming a documentary before even reaching the peak of his success, it shows that he already had a certain level of confidence and self-importance and he has always been unapologetic about that.
His self-belief even led him to barge into the Roc-A-Fella records office in 2002, as he went around the office performing All Falls Down – you know, the Grammy-nominated song from his debut album The College Dropout.
Watching this scene, as he raps along to his own track to a lacklustre response from the people in front of him, further proved that in those moments when people couldn’t quite see his vision, he continued to persevere with his dream even though Roc-A-Fella at the time did not take him “seriously as a rapper” and only “looked at him as a producer”, as mentioned by Coodie in this scene.
He was all about manifestation, way before it was cool
Tweets and Instagram posts about manifesting your reality into existence may be all the rage now, but Kanye was living that life pretty early on.
In a scene of Kanye driving around New York, the rapper speaks about his early years as a producer, running around the city with barely any money and admits that “before I had a car, I was walking to the train station practising my Grammy’s speech”.
In another scene filmed in 2022, Kanye is seen discussing recording his debut album, where he proclaims: “I’m not gonna say there’s not a way that I can fail but hopefully with God’s blessings and I’ve got Chicago on my side, it shouldn’t be no way for me to lose.”
Being defiant in his success is one of the things you can’t deny about Kanye. Even when it comes to fashion, Kanye experienced his underdog era when he launched his high fashion brand in 2012 and faced elitism from the industry he loved years before his success with Yeezy, showing that he manages to persevere in whichever industry he turns his hand to (politics, however, doesn’t seem to be going as smoothly).
He’s never been shy about giving his opinion
Whether you agree or disagree (and there are some things I’ve certainly disagreed on) Kanye has never been quiet with his opinions, whether he is sharing them on a large stage, a televised interview, or riding around in a car like he was in this documentary.
When discussing his desire to be successful, he is quick to call out certain people’s mentalities and why he is different, stating:“I might be living your American dream but I’m nowhere near mine. I have aspirations, I have big dreams.”
“I know people that are mad at me that I would give them a beat for free,” he says. “Think about it, that mentality man. N*ggas got that 40 acres and a mule complex, feel like the world owes them something because they never had anything.
“Just grind and work for your shit. Like me, I wasn’t born with no silver spoon in my mouth.”
He also mentions how different he is from others when talking about making his album and defiantly says that he isn’t going to be anyone but himself.
“I’m not gonna rap to you like I’m gonna take your life because that’s what’s hot or what’s industry-ready. I don’t give a fuck about the industry. What you need to understand is when I do this album, it’s gonna be the realest shit you’ve ever heard,” he declares.
“I’m gonna do my album the way I wanna do it.”
Watching the first episode of Jeen-Yuhs, it’s easy to see a young, hungry and eager Kanye pursuing his dreams and to feel inspired – and for some, to feel sad given the trajectory of his life, which has seen many who once loved Kanye look at him now with disappointment.
But in glimpses, it’s clear that the Kanye of today – at his core – is very much the Kanye of old – his ego, perseverance and opinionated nature have clearly transcended time, financial and cultural evolution and doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.
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