The Miscalculation of ‘Jeen-Yuhs’

Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy, the Netflix docuseries that follows Kanye West from his early days as a Chicago up-and-comer to one of the most influential artists and divisive public figures of the 21st century, offered two compelling stories. The first was of a successful producer who couldn’t stand being told he was successful; who viewed his professional triumphs and industry recognition as cinder blocks weighing down his potential for stardom until painstaking work elevated him to supernova heights. The second was the story of a man forced to reckon with the realization that no amount of money, fame, or adoration would ever serve as adequate armor against the onslaught of relentless mental illness and devastating loss.

When those two stories talked to each other, as they did when we watched Kanye on the phone with his father in the third episode — just a son talking to his dad hoping for some reassurance and love, surrounded by a car full of admirers, yet completely alone — the docuseries was special.

The problem for the series was that those moments were fleeting. The choice directors Clarence “Coodie” Simmons Jr. and Chike Ozah made to contextualize the story within the relationship of Kanye and Coodie —and their sometimes paralleled and oftentimes divergent paths — never had the legs to carry a story with the tonnage of Kanye’s cultural weight across a satisfying finish line.

Whether or not it’s fair to the filmmaking duo, a 6+ hour Netflix docuseries about one of the biggest celebrity figures in the world doesn’t just come with a massive audience, but also tremendous expectations. The series sought to tell the story of Kanye, and to be fair, at times it felt like a warm blanket of singular magic with moments you didn’t want to emerge from. The surreality of watching an artist as omnipresent in music and culture over the past two decades as Kanye have to claw relentlessly for every opportunity, and to learn what a struggle it was for him to shatter the mold formed around him; along with the times you simply got to watch him nurture enduring tracks from their infancy were so raw and unfiltered that their authenticity took your breath away.

But the nature of Coodie and Kanye’s relationship and the prolonged gaps in filming placed major restrictions on the scope of the project. The series couldn’t tell the story of Kanye’s career (how could it without showing us the moments around My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or exploring the artistic ambition of Yeezus?) in the same way it could never tell his personal story without more substantially addressing his relationship to his children and to his now ex-wife.

There are several threads that stretch the length of Kanye’s public life; of course, his music, but also the fashion enterprise, his public persona, and his relationships — to his family, other artists, and even to his hometown of Chicago — and the moments that resonate in Jeen-Yuhs are the ones that highlight these strands.

Rather than letting those instances breathe, though, scenes like Kanye’s interview at his post-Grammys party and the way we saw him handle his mother’s death felt rigid in the documentary’s pursuit of a more narrow focus: his manic behavior at the post-Grammys party and his response to Donda’s passing had their significance shrunk and repackaged into glimpses of an estranged friendship.

The success of Jeen-Yuhs will be measured by its critical response and streaming numbers, and as a part of our broader media consumption culture, by the buzz it generates; but we can also gauge the film’s success in the context of what endures, and most importantly, what a new chapter in a 20+ year saga teaches us that we didn’t already know. One part of the series that, by those standards, is a massive success is the project’s most striking conceit — the extent of Kanye’s battle with mental illness. It’s one of the few aspects of the docuseries that benefited from gaps in filming; we weren’t allowed to deceive ourselves into thinking we were watching an artist slowly becoming more eccentric, we knew we were watching a man at various stages of an intense inner battle.

This was the story begging to be told; the one that might force us to look within and question when a prolific, foundational music catalog and extensive cultural imprint is enough for us to feel satiated in our relationship with an artist. Have we as spectators added destructive weight to untenably burdened shoulders or turned a blind eye to destructive behavior in order to preserve our enjoyment of his artistic endeavors?

For those of us who have been along for the ride since the early days, Jeen-Yuhs reminded us that despite the personal connection we’ve shared with Kanye and his willingness to be open about his turmoil, it’s impossible to understand the extent of his struggle without seeing it first hand. His brilliance has often provided an effective cover, but the docuseries laid bare the worrisome truth that for Kanye, the cellular necessity to innovate and a healthy mental balance have often been at odds.

Jeen-Yuhs was messy and oftentimes disjointed, but the seeds of something ground-breaking were budding, at times trying to reveal a more nuanced examination of whether our relationship with Kanye has become parasitic. It left me wondering if this story was told in a different way whether it might force me to reevaluate my own connection to one of the most impactful artists of my life, but in the end, it never had the tools at its disposal or the courage to ask such an uncomfortable question.

I guess we’ll never know.

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NYC by way of PDX — Writing about TV, culture, and sports.

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Jordan A. Kirsch

Jordan A. Kirsch

NYC by way of PDX — Writing about TV, culture, and sports.

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