Six years ago this week, Kanye West turned everything people had been saying about him back onto them. Coming nearly halfway into his February 2016 album, The Life of Pablo, “I Love Kanye” plays like a Jimmy Kimmel Mean Tweets segment, as West runs through some of the most common complaints about how he’d supposedly changed: He doesn’t flip soul samples anymore; the pink Polo has been replaced by high fashion and impossibly priced sneakers; and he’s now in the news more for his outbursts than his music. It marked a rare self-aware moment when the rapper-producer could tap into the public perception of him and play it for laughs, a reminder that the man who made The College Dropout could be actually very charming when he wasn’t claiming to be Shakespeare in the flesh. “I miss the Old Kanye,” went the 44-second track’s refrain, and the natural question that arose was: Had Kanye changed all that much or was this playful interlude evidence that he was essentially the same guy who burst onto the scene in the early 2000s with a Benz and a backpack, loudly proclaiming his greatness and largely backing it up?
The idea of an Old Kanye is one that’s impossible to shake throughout jeen-yuhs, the three-part West documentary directed by Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah that rolls out on Netflix weekly starting Wednesday. The bulk of the 277-minute series comes from footage captured by Simmons beginning in 2002, when West (who legally changed his full name to Ye last year) invited the Chicago filmmaker to chronicle his attempts to transition from beatsmith to solo artist. The first two episodes, which document West’s rise to fame, show Kanye at both his most fiery and most vulnerable. One minute he’s passionately rapping along to demos for unsuspecting Roc-A-Fella employees; the next he’s shown looking dejected when his name is misprinted for the umpteenth time or a rapper treats him as nothing more than a producer. There are heartfelt scenes, like the ones of West and his mother, Donda, at his childhood home, as well as trying ones, like when a misconstrued magazine interview leads to a beef with Dug Infinite, a producer who mentored a young Kanye.
Tracking a pre-fame West from Chicago to New York and back, Simmons received access at a time when the artist was navigating the stigma of being a so-called “conscious rapper” in an era defined by tough-guy posturing. The filmmaker also captured specific junctures that have come to define Kanye, like his Roc-A-Fella gold chaining ceremony and even the moment an oral surgeon removed the wires that held West’s jaw shut after a near-fatal car crash. Through it all, predictably, West isn’t afraid to evangelize about his talents: He doesn’t want to be known as just a great producer or rapping-producer dual threat (the latter, he says, is like calling someone the “best kid rapper”)—he wants to be recognized as the visionary he believes himself to be. “I may be living my American Dream, but I’m nowhere near where my dream is,” he tells an interviewer early in Act I. He thinks he’ll get there even if no one outside of him and Simmons does.
Moments like those make jeen-yuhs a remarkable historical document, particularly in its first two installments, titled “Vision” and “Purpose.” So much of the Kanye story, from the car accident to labels’ reluctance to take him seriously, has long been passed down in breathless blog posts and KTT screeds (and occasionally by West himself in songs like “Through the Wire” and “Last Call”). But jeen-yuhs etches the legends into stone, allowing the viewer to experience those pivotal events as West did. Culled from more than 300 hours of footage captured by Simmons over 20 years, the series is essential for any fan of popular music, full stop: The access to an artist at West’s level at that stage of their career—especially in a pre-smartphone era—is virtually unprecedented. And as musician documentaries become more an extension of branding rather than an exercise in journalism, Simmons and Ozah’s ability to keep West out of the editing room should be celebrated. Jeen-yuhs isn’t always perfect—both Simmons’s narration and the score sometimes undercut moments best presented without any affectation, and the film occasionally loses steam when it turns the camera away from its main subject—but the documentary is always fascinating, even if viewer mileage may vary given the endless, often ugly news cycle swirling around West.
In its best early scenes, jeen-yuhs takes viewers inside the studio walls where West crafted his Roc-A-Fella classics, filtering each moment through Simmons’s lens—and by extension, West’s eyes. The camera doesn’t often show him hunched over an MPC or scribbling rhymes; rather, there’s footage of him finagling his way onto a Jay-Z track and stealing a few minutes at the end of another artist’s session to lay down a hook for The College Dropout. Some songs come together in real time—Jamie Foxx stops by to work out “Slow Jamz,” while West and Mos Def rap the verses to “Two Words” a cappella like two supernovas passing in the sky—but the main attraction is the intrigue surrounding the sessions and West’s slow rise from behind the boards to the marquee. In perhaps the most captivating music moment of Act I, West invites the rapper Scarface to listen to the beats for the tracks that would become “Jesus Walks” and “Family Business.” Kanye had yet to land his Roc-A-Fella deal—and despite some dalliances with A&Rs from Capitol and indie hip-hop factory Rawkus Records, nothing seemed imminent with any other label, either. Getting Face on a song on his debut album, Kanye believes, would change that. But while the Houston legend nods his head politely to West’s production and rhymes, he leaves without agreeing to a guest spot. Was he annoyed that Kanye played him only two tracks? Did he find West’s lyrics embarrassingly earnest? Was he simply disgusted that Ye removed his retainer and placed it nonchalantly on a countertop? By forgoing talking heads, jeen-yuhs doesn’t offer clear answers to these or similar questions, but the resulting effect is still powerful: With the camera lingering on West’s reaction, each slight—real or perceived—cuts just a little more, which makes every career triumph feel all the more monumental.
As conceived nearly 20 years ago, jeen-yuhs was originally intended to conclude with the most exceptional of those early triumphs: West taking home his first Grammy awards in 2005—the ultimate vindication of his early bets on himself. But as West’s star rose, he and Simmons grew apart. Visits became infrequent and planned collaborations were abandoned. At a Grammy after-party in 2006, West calls Simmons the wrong name at least three times on camera, which the now-superstar rapper blames on having ingested too much wine on Bono’s private jet. With his newfound fame, Simmons said, West had no interest in releasing the documentary they had planned, partly because he wanted to hide the “real” version of himself. “He told me he was acting now, playing a role,” Simmons says at one point. “And now that the media wanted to put their cameras on him, I sat back and watched the show like everyone else.”
But unlike everyone else, Simmons was still granted periodic check-ins with West. Those experiences—and the time in between them—make up most of jeen-yuhs’s third and most controversial act, titled “Awakening.” While the appeal of the first two acts is the unfettered access, “Awakening” uses distance to its advantage. Simmons watches from afar as West publicly grapples with his mother’s 2007 death; he’s not there as the rapper deals with the fallout from the Taylor Swift VMA incident or the blustering Sway in the Morning interview, nor as Kanye celebrates his marriage to Kim Kardashian or the birth of his first daughter, North. As those moments happen, jeen-yuhs shifts from a ground-level documentary to a character study of arguably the most famous musician in the world. When West decides in 2017 shortly after his hospitalization for mental health treatment that he’d like to finish the film with Simmons, their sporadic visits span years and take them across the globe. Footage spans from China to Wyoming to the Dominican Republic as West wraps a collaboration with Kid Cudi, designs shoes, and plots a presidential run. At each point, there’s a notable shift in Kanye’s demeanor—the overwhelming positivity of the 2017 check-in, where he’s open about his struggles with suicidal ideation and prescription pill addiction, eventually give way to fiery sermons in subsequent meetups. In many ways, it’s the same Kanye we met in those early Roc-A-Fella days—self-assured and self-righteous, passionate to a fault and looking to attract converts. But now, the terms of the discussion have changed: No longer simply preaching his own greatness, West fulminates against abortion and frets about the public “execution” he says he’s been subjected to. While Kanye once sought Jay-Z’s approval, he’s now ecstatic when Tucker Carlson backs his ideas. During one fraught conversation, as West becomes increasingly incoherent, Simmons turns his camera off. To continue filming would’ve felt uncomfortable, if not unethical.
These scenes are likely to stick with viewers more than any of the College Dropout sessions, particularly given the recent torrent of news surrounding the rapper. After a chaotic 2021 brought a messy album rollout for Donda and the announcement of his divorce from Kardashian, the past few weeks have seen West using social media and new songs to harass his ex-wife and her new boyfriend, Pete Davidson. (On Tuesday, he appeared to express regret for those outbursts before quickly restarting his attack.) He feuded with Kid Cudi (again) and attempted to bully Billie Eilish—a woman less than half his age—to apologize for things she never actually said. A whirlwind romance with Julia Fox resulted in a fresh tabloid cycle and enough photoshoots to fill a dozen glossy magazines. And soon there will be more, including a new album and concert, both reportedly due next week. Thanks to Twitter and Instagram, we have more access to Kanye West than we could’ve ever possibly desired. Jeen-yuhs adds four-plus more hours of content to the pile, albeit in a more in-depth and nuanced way than ever before. It will surely make some viewers pine for the Old Kanye. But others will question whether the New Kanye is actually all that new, or whether he was lurking inside all along.
“I Love Kanye” appears once in jeen-yuhs, about midway through Act III. Simmons brings his camera to West’s infamous Yeezy Season 3 event at Madison Square Garden when the rapper debuts tracks from The Life of Pablo. Set up on stage, the director captures the joyous nature of the listening party—Kanye jumping up and down with Kid Cudi to “Father Stretch My Hands,” heads bobbing in unison to “Famous.” But when the a cappella “I Love Kanye” comes on, the action stops. Simmons trains his lens on Kanye, who pantomimes along to the track, popping his imaginary Polo collar and laughing at his own punch lines. He’s starkly exposed—no music, no chaos, just a man poking at the public perception of him and having a little fun at his own expense. The track ends and he’s greeted with polite applause from the sold-out crowd. West looks away from the camera and down to his laptop, ready to cue up the next track. But Simmons lingers for an extra beat on West, whose smile is as wide as the arena he’s standing in. For a second, it’s not a matter of old vs. new or any of the discourse around Kanye—it’s a shared moment between two old friends with decades of history who had imagined things like this long before anyone else could.