'jeen-yuhs' review: An essential portrait of Kanye West's rise

Miss the old Kanye? It's all here in his engaging, intimate portrait of the rapper's rise to stardom and everything that came after.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

If there ever was an artist who was going to have a documentary rolling on themselves from the very beginning of their career, it's Kanye West. 

The dizzying result of more than 20 years of intimately shot footage, "jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy" is an enthralling, essential chronicle of one of the world's greatest living artists and most fascinating — and frustrating — personalities. Love him or hate him, you can't take your eyes off of him, and the three-part, four-and-a-half-hour "jeen-yuhs" never blinks in its depiction of the man behind the myth, and how the myth eventually eclipsed the man. 

Kanye West in 'jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy.'

"Jeen-yuhs" — sound it out if it's throwing you off — is directed by Clarence "Coodie" Simmons and Chike Ozah, who are professionally known as Coodie & Chike. Coodie was documenting Chicago's hip-hop scene in the 1990s for a TV show called "Channel Zero," and he first met Kanye at hip-hop super producer Jermaine Dupri's birthday in 1998. From there, the cameras never stopped rolling, and Coodie, who also narrates the film, is along for the ride as Kanye becomes one of the world's biggest superstars.

"Jeen-yuhs" shows that Kanye was always Kanye — the talent was there from the very beginning, as were the ego and the bravado — but he just needed to catch the right breaks and have the right doors opened for him to get where he was going. Everybody needs a helping hand, and it's surprising to see Kanye practically begging MTV, still a powerful gatekeeper and star maker in the early '00s, to shine a spotlight on him.

His resilience and his belief in himself is part of his drive. Scratching and clawing to have those barriers in his way broken down — and to erase the stigma of the limiting "producer-rapper" tag that was applied to him — only made him hungrier for his eventual success. 

Kanye 'Ye' West in 'jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy.'

The first of the documentary's three chapters, titled "Vision," largely focuses on Kanye's early hustle, working to get a record deal and eventually landing one with Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella Records.

Part two, "Purpose," surrounds the making of his 2004 debut album "The College Dropout" and his rise to international superstardom, and the third part, "Awakening," is about Kanye's transition to the brash Yeezy character and his slip from any sort of recognizable reality. Coodie, ever present and without agenda, captures moments that define each of these eras, and Kanye's own words frame the narrative of his story.

It's his mother, Donda, who acted as the rock in his life. "Jeen-yuhs" rounds up early, quiet moments between Kanye and his mom that show the depth of his love and appreciation for her, and her for him. She's his biggest fan and his most vocal cheerleader, and she keeps him grounded even as he's ascending to the cosmos.

Donda West and Kanye 'Ye' West in 'jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy.'

Donda's sudden death in 2007 marked a turning point in Kanye's life, and "jeen-yuhs" shows the before and after and the lasting effects her death left on him. 

As a documentary subject, Kanye is magnetic, and "jeen-yuhs" shows the small, vulnerable moments that break through his superhuman façade: his hurt when his Chicago friend and mentor Dug Infinite publicly turns on him, his reverence for rap figureheads such as Scarface and Jay-Z, his innocence in trying to impress a child in the hallways of a recording studio by rattling off his production credits. 

Coodie and Chike also capture the buzz and electricity that surrounds the making of a megastar. There's a revelatory feel in the early footage, especially during a backstage rhyme session where Kanye and Mos Def perform an a cappella rendition of their early collaboration "Two Words."

Coodie and Kanye 'Ye' West in 'jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy.'

You can see the elation on Mos Def's face as he basks in the energy of a young Kanye. And and you can see the determination in Kanye as he commands the camera, at one point standing up to make the lens re-focus on him, as he blows everyone in the room away with his talent. It's a transcendent moment, and even Kanye knows it.

"Jeen-yuhs" acts as an inspirational story and also a cautionary tale, as the latter scenes show the effects of all that fame and all that unchecked megalomania on his person. It's a crash course in Kanye, and the good, the bad and the ugly of a one-of-a-kind visionary and living legend. 

There's a scene early in "jeen-yuhs" that shows Kanye showing up at the offices of Roc-A-Fella and rapping for near anyone who will listen. It's already a bit of a running joke at this point that he's having a documentary made about himself, and one of the guys in the office jokes about whether the doc is nearing completion.

"It'll never be finished," Kanye says, and in a sense the story of Kanye West is still very much being told. But "jeen-yuhs" is a vital document on how we got this far. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy'

GRADE: A

Not rated: language

Running time: 276 minutes

On Netflix