Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy – The BRWC Review. By Shani Harris.
Kanye West is a global superstar who has achieved success as a Grammy Award winning rapper, producer, and innovative fashion icon. Director Clarence “Coodie” Simmons had the foresight to use his camera and document the meteoric rise of a popstar, after a chance encounter at Jermaine Dupri’s party, when Kanye was just 17 years-old. The former comedian launched a Channel Zero public access tv show, while interviewing up and comers in the Chicago hip hop scene. These candid moments reminded me of the history Uncle Ralph McDaniels captured while he filmed 90’s nightlife in the New York City hip hop scene.
Coodie was inspired by the classic documentary Hoop Dreams directed by Steve James. The film followed the trials and pitfalls of two promising Chicago based basketball stars who had the potential to become the next Michael Jordan. Sadly, the longitudinal documentary study highlights the negative outcomes and failure for two boys struggling to get out of the hood. Both boys never reach their goals to overcome injuries and other obstacles to be drafted by the NBA. Jeen-Yuhs is a joy to watch because it showcases a David and Goliath story of a hungry Chicago native hustling to accomplish a fairy tale.
I was transfixed by Jeen-Yuhs, while watching the premiere of the first episode at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. I must confess that it felt like I had stepped into a time capsule to witness the old Kanye, that I used to know who is a family friend. He was young, talented, brash and full of ambition with the world ahead of him. I watched all three episodes deemed work in progress cuts which condense 20 plus years into 277 minutes of jump cuts and cameos by Jay-Z, Pharrell, Mos Def and Rhymefest. A scene with Coodie showcasing Kanye’s success at a champagne celebration with his mom in his first Hollywood Hills home brought me back to fond memories of spending time at the house and listening to early recordings of tracks in the studio.
“When I first met Kanye at 17, I saw he was fearless’. Director Coodie told me while talking about the Netflix docuseries with co-director Chike Ozah on a zoom call. “He really believed in his talent and himself.“ I first met Kanye in the studio years ago with rapper Talib Kweli before the release of his College Dropout album. My sister was his personal assistant and it truly did take a village for his nascent career to take off. I fondly remember pitching in one day and rushing to help with a train ride when Kanye needed his College Dropout bear costume for a BET television appearance.
Coodie takes us on a journey which spans over 20 years in the life of an artist from the first episode titled Act:1 Vision. He narrates the story by telling the audience that he took a leap of faith when he saw Kanye’s raw talent. Simmons eventually moved from Chicago to New York, when Kanye was trying to transition from being a struggling producer to being taken seriously as a rapping MC. The tender moments when he is talking with his mother shows their close bond as she keeps him grounded with her religious guidance and wisdom.
The first episode focuses on Kanye’s uphill battle to convince Roc-A-Fella Records CEO’s Jay-Z and Damon Dash to add him as an artist on their label. He gets his wish after spitting impromptu freestyle jams in the empty offices, while onlookers completely ignore him. His career trajectory is almost halted after he is seriously injured in a car crash. The near death experience and broken jaw inspire his Chaka Khan infused hit “Through The Wire”. Kanye makes miracles happen by continuing on his path to greatness by calling in favors to get himself on MTV, shooting a low budget music video and recording an album in Jamie Foxx’s home studio.
I have witnessed some of these moments. I was in the studio with Kanye while he was working on The College Dropout album. I vividly remember sitting in the edit suite, while Ye was supervising the director’s cuts of his Slow Jams music video with Twista and had firsthand experience viewing his transformation from obscurity. Coodie explains in his voiceover how hard it was to get the doors ajar. But another floodgate opened at MTV when he met his co-director and collaborator Chike Ozah. Kanye continued to self finance his music videos and projects even after he was signed. Remember that classic Punk’d episode when Kanye was protective of his music video footage, when Ashton Kutcher staged a stunt with fake security guards to seize what was filmed on the shoot? Now people will understand why Kanye freaked out that Ashton’s Kevin like stunt would jeopardize his career after an excessive out of pocket expense. The rapper didn’t have a 360 deal because the label honchos didn’t believe in him. He made money on tour selling his merchandise and hawking wares.
The directing duo of Coodie & Chike made barebones versions of Kanye’s Jesus Walks music video helping the song to became a smash hit. But once Kanye was given respect in the industry, their friendship couldn’t handle the pressures of fame and they grew apart. Act 2 and Act 3 condense the rift in their relationship with the accomplishments that Kanye is able to obtain from winning Grammy Awards, becoming a pop culture celebrity, launching a successful fashion line, becoming a father to ultimately running for President.
Coodie fills in the gaps during their times being estranged by explaining how he took a pivot in his own life and became a father. The verite footage provides a fly on the wall intimacy during the early years. There are moments when the subject and the observer reconnect once Kanye’s mother asks him to document a fundraiser for their foundation. Common intervenes on another occasion when there is a rift in the relationship and beckons him to film a concert in Chicago . The rapper confesses that Kanye is going to be his special guest. I had a chance to see Kanye in happier times at a private an album release party with fountains flowing with Hennessy Cognac with his mom, Nick Cannon and Maxwell a few days before Kanye blurted out his infamous phrase indicting former President George Bush for his response to the loss of life after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. He conducted a television interview with a popular entertainment news show which never aired due to the controversy and fall out from his actions speaking on behalf of the victims .Kanye turned into a persona non grata overnight losing major endorsements and producing deals, but he eventually crawled back from the brink of cancellation.
The sudden tragic death of Kanye’s mother, Donda West, has Coodie providing a beacon of hope to the family as he helps them prepare her eulogy. But Kanye succumbs to his personal demons, while sinking further into the abyss of depression. This culminates in some dire moments in Wyoming that are showcased in the final episodes. Spanning over 4 1/2 hours we see that Vision, Purpose and Awakening are part of the recipe for a tortured soul to endure a path to musical greatness. Coodie admits he is nervous to meet Ye’s split bipolar personalities after reconnecting with Kanye again during the Life of Pablo fashion show and album listening experience.
I was a model in the fashion show on the stage under the tarp before the crowd at MSG. The stakes were higher that day for the Kardashian klan who were filming their popular reality show, because Lamar Odom had almost died from a near fatal overdose. Everyone applauded when Odom entered the stadium by Kanye’s side to listen to the new music with A$AP Rocky and Kid Cudi in the coveted inner circle. Their close brotherly bond culminates in Coodie becoming so protective of Kanye’s image that he shuts off the camera a few days before Kanye has a public mental breakdown while announcing his run for President.
“For Coodie to have seen that and been able to sacrifice all of this time and to believe in something so long for you to see the documentation. For him to keep that camera up when he saw all these famous people playing me.” Kanye told an audience after an exclusive Netflix screening in LA. “And it was his belief that he saw to be able to show y’all this. It’s like those tapes that I would have been embarrassed by y’all seeing them a year after it happened or right after it happened. They all make sense now. Coodie I just have to say I thank you and I love you.”
Kanye wants you to see Jeen-Yuhs and everyone should view it to get a better understanding of his inspirational origin story.
Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It is now streaming on Netflix in three weekly episodes. A special director’s cut screening of episodes 2 & 3 will screen at SOB’S NYC with Coodie and Chike on Feb. 21st.
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