Even before I decided to become a critic, one of the items on my bucket list as a movie buff was to attend Sundance. With COVID still in full swing, I finally had the chance this year and had the pleasure to screen quite a few films. One of my most anticipated was Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy. Featuring a run time of nearly four hours, Part 1 of the documentary had its world premiere at Sundance.
No matter what one may personally think about Kanye West and his antics, Yeezy’s influence on the world is undeniable. Whether it’s interrupting the speech of a Pop princess, marrying a reality star, or dabbling in the world of fashion, the twice recipient of Time’s magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world is here to stay.
However, before all of that, the Louis Vuitton Don was trying to make his mark in the music world. While on his journey to the top, Kanye meets two aspiring filmmakers named Coodie & Chike, who made their way into his circle. The duo serves as directors on Jeen-yuhs, an intimate portrait of Mr. West.
The documentary charts his life and career, filmed over two-plus decades and showcases both his formative days trying to break through and ultimately ends with his life today as a global brand and artist. Part 1 carries the title “Vision” and introduces us to Kanye in Chicago in 1998.
Die-hard fans know that Kanye started as a producer at 19 when he provided eight tracks to Chi-town rapper Grav’s debut 1996 Down to Earth. Two years later, West was working with D-Dot and producing tracks for the likes of Mase and Jermaine Dupri. These early moments of Kanye are great as we see a man chasing his dream but still just an everyday guy. Numerous moments show Kanye having to give out his retainer before he raps or gives an interview. As we all know, Kanye eventually becomes one of the in-house producers for Roc-A-Fella, but despite his best intentions, he couldn’t make it as a rapper.
If you’ve heard “Last Call” from The College Dropout, then some of the footage shown won’t be new to you. However, to see the lyrics from the song play out, one can’t help but smile, particularly during the cameos. Rappers Memphis Bleek, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, and Jay-Z all show up at some point. Seeing Ye and Mos perform an early version of “Two Words” is worth the view alone.
Watching the documentary, we get a sense of just what it takes to make it in the music business. The scene where Kanye bum rushes Roc A Fella records before being signed and plays a rough version of a future hit is reminiscent of when New Edition sang and danced their way into a contract with longtime label MCA. Anyone who has worked hard only to face that rejection will identify with these moments.
Towards the end of the documentary, before Kanye finally achieves his initial goal, there is a beautifully artistic moment with his late mother, Donda. Having been raised by a single mother, I’ve always identified with Kanye’s relationship with mom dukes. When times are tough, it’s always great to get a boost of confidence from mom. If I had one complaint about the doc, it was the lack of Donda moments; however, hearing her rap one of Kanye’s songs makes up for it.
Going through all of this footage had to be a chore for the directors and editors. However, the directors are no strangers to the documentary genre; they previously helmed the heartbreaking 30 for 30: Benji. There was never a moment when they placed Ye on a pedestal or tried to justify his latest shenanigans. Instead, we have the story of a man who was determined to see his vision come to fruition.
Hip Hop heads worldwide felt a sense of elation in 2016 when Kanye West released the song “I Love Kanye” from his seventh album, The Life of Pablo. With a run time of only forty-four seconds and lacking a backing track, it gave us the vibes of the Kanye, who had a classic debut. That said, those who miss the old Kanye and who may not care for him will find much to enjoy with Act 1 of Jeen-Yuhs.
Final Grade : A
Part 1 of Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy opens in theaters tonight for a one night showing. It will be available to stream via Netflix on February 16th
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