Every day this month, a new Kanye headline has washed ashore, each more lurid and upsetting than the last. He publicly posts Kim’s pleading messages to keep their exchanges private; he brings accused rapist Marilyn Manson into his creative inner circle to work on Donda 2. Even his trivial slights—threatening to pull out of Coachella unless Billie Eilish apologizes to Travis Scott, for instance—reek of late-imperial rot, a celebrity career in its final spiritual death throes. For the truly determined, a fall from grace never has to reach bottom, and Kanye is nothing if not determined. It’s a numbing spectacle, and it often feels like the most graceful reaction is to turn away.
So what kind of time is it, really, for jeen-yuhs, a four-and-a-half-hour Netflix documentary that rewinds the clock all the way to the beginning? (The film will be released in three parts across the next few weeks, with the first part debuting today.) Not even Kanye appears ready to celebrate its release: After recently requesting that the filmmakers “open up the edit room” so he could protect his image—a sad prospect—he has apparently reached a wary detente with the film. If Kanye had played his cards differently, jeen-yuhs would be a victory lap. But he has been aggressively doubling down on losing hands for so long now that the documentary instead comes across like an early love letter resurfacing during an ugly custody battle: The only true takeaway is how much has been lost.
The best thing I can say about jeen-yuhs is that it’s essential viewing, especially if you’ve had a tough time grappling with this man’s words and actions for the last five years. It’s directed by Clarence “Coodie” Simmons, who acts as our proxy in the story, narrating long chunks in his calming drawl. A comedian and public-access TV host who made a name for himself documenting Chicago’s ’90s hip-hop scene, Coodie first noticed Kanye as a 21-year-old local producer. Intrigued by this fidgety upstart’s ambition to be a beatmaker and a rapper, Coodie decides to follow him around for a while, seeing the possibility for a Hoop Dreams-style documentary about making it against all odds.
The story that Coodie wants to tell us is about how he got more than he bargained for—how Kanye not only succeeded at his goal, but kept on succeeding, beyond what anyone could have considered possible. Coodie positions himself as someone who understands his subject, having witnessed what drives him in his most vulnerable moments. And for two-thirds of his inevitably marred, fascinating, and troubling documentary, that’s exactly who he is—a trusted day-one connection who films Kanye’s every move at a time when there is no apparent reason to be doing so. An amusing running theme, at least early on, is how many puzzled inquiries Kanye gets about the dude with the camera. “This man is doing a documentary on me,” Kanye explains, repeatedly, at which everyone’s bewilderment just grows deeper: you?
It’s still irresistible to root for this underdog version of Kanye, an earnest, good-natured guy bursting with obvious talent, who plays his “Benz and a backpack” songs for disinterested Roc-A-Fella office drones and steals 10 minutes’ worth of studio time from other artists to sneak in work on his indefinitely shelved debut. At one point, he takes his friends over to see his mother, and it is startlingly powerful to see how gently and immediately Donda humbles her son. Whenever she talks, Kanye drops his head—his deference is immediate, and instinctual. “The giant looks in the mirror and sees nothing,” she counsels him. She waits, in silence, watching him struggle under the weight of this insight, and then she starts laughing. Humility doesn’t come easy for him.
The first two parts are full of endearing moments that are nearly heartbreaking in their innocence. In one, Kanye is waiting outside of Ludacris’ studio, hoping that he might get the rapper to record a hook for a track on The College Dropout. Luda is nowhere to be found, and as Kanye waits nervously in the hall, he stops a bored little kid, asking if he knows hits like Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).” “I produced all those joints,” he informs the kid, hopefully. “Cool,” the kid says, thoughtlessly, before scooting away.
In another, Kanye convinces Jay-Z to let him do a guest verse on “The Bounce,” from 2002’s The Blueprint 2, in an effort to convince the Roc-A-Fella powers-that-be to take him seriously as a rapper. He proceeds to spit a truly terrible verse, with a mind-numbingly bad Shrek reference, directly to his hero in the control room. But his conviction is so infectious that it rouses Jay, who coaches a visibly nervous Kanye in the recording booth, line by line. During playback, Kanye twirls in his chair, looking up at the ceiling. “Just a long-ass way from fuckin’ rapping in my mama’s crib,” he murmurs dreamily.
For nearly three hours, jeen-yuhs lingers lovingly on this striving period before Kanye’s debut album. You can almost feel Coodie and his directing partner Chike trying not to look too hard at all that came next. They want to stay here with the “Old Kanye,” the one we all started to lose the minute we knew of him.
After The College Dropout comes out and the Grammys start rolling in, Coodie recedes from Kanye’s life. The whiplash is disorienting, for Coodie and for us. He closes the second part by fast-forwarding through the next 10 years in a nightmare blur—“You ain’t got the answers” and “Imma let you finish” and “That sounds like a choice” in one bloody Cuisinart. A sense of dread kicks in, and the stage is set for jeen-yuhs’ lonely finale.
The feeling that Coodie doesn’t know what to do with the last several years of Kanye’s life is palpable. Like everyone else, he’s confused and alienated, watching the Kanye Show from his phone. He and Kanye only brush shoulders at the most during Kanye’s miracle run, from Graduation through The Life of Pablo. jeen-yuhs suddenly becomes a document of unrequited love, about the people we leave behind.
Then, in 2017, Kanye invites Coodie, and his camera, back into his life—but much of the footage from this more recent period is so excruciating that you almost wish he hadn’t. While making Jesus Is King, Kanye holds forth on his allegiance to Trump, God’s plan, and his new music, as anonymous hangers-on stare at him with the blank detachment of predatory cats. “I’ve got all kind of family around me,” he says, briefly mentioning Coodie, but this offhand comment only reinforces how painfully alone he seems. Neither his wife nor his children make an appearance around this time, or even walk by in the background.
As Kanye goes about his increasingly surreal business, he makes multiple references to his mental health issues. Some of them are endearing, like when he tells a group of designers how he wants his shoe to have a slimming effect because he’s 35 pounds overweight due to his medication. And some of them are terrifying, awful. “Have you guys ever been, like, locked up in handcuffs and put into a hospital because your brain was too big for your skull?” he asks at one point, rattling the unholy calm of the potential real estate partners in his company, who look freshly arrived from human blood transfusions. “No? OK, well I have.” He goes on to tell these men that he took medication so he could “turn alien into English,” and grows increasingly belligerent and incoherent. As the developers behold him with cool, moneyed contempt, Coodie does the only decent thing. He cuts the camera off.
As the documentary ends at one of last summer’s Donda listening parties, Coodie resorts to cliché. “Even with everything that’s changed, I still see so much of the person I first put the camera on 21 yeas ago,” the director says, unconvincingly. You can sense him struggling to find a redemptive, peaceful note on which to end his life’s work. But a life’s work is not linear—it unravels, it corrects itself. Mostly, your life’s work is a fiction that drives you. For Coodie, this means watching Kanye. For Kanye, the idea of “life’s work” seems to have transformed into a pathogen, something killing him from the inside. Whatever else might be said about jeen-yuhs—its gaps in coverage, its lack of objectivity—it’s impossible to watch it and feel nothing.