When you hear the name Kanye West, what do you think? Do you think of his failed 2020 presidential election bid? Where were you when West famously said, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people?” Do you remember “The College Dropout” or were your glory years later, and perhaps you basked in the maximalist bliss of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy?” Were you tuned in when he snatched the mic out of Taylor Swift’s hands at MTV Video Music Awards?
Obviously, West has made quite the name for himself in the last 20 years. There is no doubt that he is a talented musician, albeit maybe not as groundbreaking in recent times as he would give himself credit for. The new Netflix documentary, “Jeen-Yuhs” follows West on his quest for fame and fortune.
There is also the very public mental health aspect of Kanye, but that in itself, is part of perhaps a larger discussion. In addition, there is his very public divorce drama with Kim Kardashian.
I want to put that to the side for now, while regarding that Kanye has behaved dishonorably in the wake of his split from the very famous influencer. I don’t want to condone her behavior either, suffice to say it is up to them to settle their disagreements.
I do want to keep in mind all of these things that are happening around Kanye, when we discuss the old Kanye. The “old Kanye,” the colloquial term for that 2004-2010 version of Kanye when he was at his artistic zenith and at the height of his popularity (with the exception of pre-hypebeast culture), was a beloved human being.
There were nights he took home armfulls of Grammy Awards, literally. To see him in this new documentary when he was just breaking into producing, and humble, is sort of remarkable.
A particularly moving scene in which he interacts with his mother shows what is probably the most important piece of solving the Kanye puzzle. The notable moment features his mother, Donda West, herself a professor and chair of Chicago State University’s Department of English.
When Kanye comes home to visit her in his childhood home, fresh from his attempts at making it big in New York City, she offers a parable to him as he tries to find the most confident version of himself.
“The giant looks in the mirror and sees nothing,” says Donda West. Her son seems slightly confused, but she further explains that, “And (you) come up a little arrogant even though you’re humble and everything.”
She instructs Kanye to remain humble, further adding, “Everyone sees the giant.” Her death in 2007, following a botched plastic surgery operation, was devastating for West, who utilized her for guidance on many occasions.
So why does “Jeen-Yuhs” warrant a watch? Even if you are not a Kanye fan, there is something to be said for the effect that money and fame has on an individual. What would otherwise be a great story of growth, a comment on the classic rags to riches tale, is actually a pretty sad story. It is amazing and impressive that Kanye has built a multimedia empire in which his shoes are arguably more famous than his music.
After all he is Kanye West. His name is synonymous with TMZ and high-interaction media news. Episode 2 aired this past week and showed us when Kanye finally broke through.
There is something admirable about Kanye’s drive to succeed. His debut album, “The College Dropout,” was a manifesto of a man who had no other options other than to succeed in music.
The second episode of the trilogy features Kanye fearlessly rapping to whoever he comes into contact with, whether that be super-producer Pharell Williams, Atlanta’s own Ludacris, and even veteran Texas rapper, Scarface.
When Pharrell hears West rap “Never Let Me Down” in person, he quickly gives it up for the young artist. “You’re my favorite new artist,” Williams says.
As the show continues, we remember the Kanye West of our own time is a problematic individual. He is a man who has questionable opinions and treats others strangely, but for the sake of appreciating the struggle in his early career, the new documentary really shines.
This documentary has the potential to inspire others. Not everyone is as driven or as skilled as Kanye was in his youth. However, it is likely that there are others out there with just as much heart as the young Chicago producer had when he decided to start rapping.
If Kanye’s story can prompt others to stay focused in their own lives, then the new film has done its job. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out here.