The ‘jeen-yuhs’ of Kanye West
The Greek myth goes that one day, Daedalus fashioned some wings out of feathers and wax for him and his son Icarus to escape Crete. Due to their material, Daedalus warned his son to neither fly too low to the ocean or too high to the sun, for fear of the wings dampening or melting. If he kept a balance between the two, he promised, he and Icarus would safely survive. But tempted by his own hubris, Icarus flew higher and higher until his wings began to melt, and he fell into the sea and drowned, spawning the familiar idiom “don’t fly too close to the sun.”
For a good decade, Kanye West (who legally changed his name to Ye last October) has been flying. A bravado since day one, no one was surer of his vision than himself, a trait that has landed him in his fair share of controversies over the years but has really just proved the one thing he’s yearned for all along: understanding. In his three-part Netflix documentary jeen-yuhs, compiled with footage his good friend Coodie took of him from the late 90s to now, Ye spends the majority of it just trying to get someone to take him seriously. Whether it’s trying to get Roc-A-Fella to see him as a rapper rather than just a producer, preaching that of course he thinks he’s the greatest and that we all should think that way about ourselves too, or rapping an entire song with his jaw wired shut, Ye’s entire career has been spent trying to soar in a world that keeps trying to drag him back down to sea.
The name Kanye, we learn, means “only one”, and with that on your shoulders it’s hard to not fulfil the destiny. There’s smoke to the fire though, even if a lot of it is shrouded in ego. Ye is a master at what he does, there’s absolutely no denying it. Fans could’ve told you that five albums ago, but it’s a whole new perspective seeing the process for yourself. “You’re one of my favourite artists, man,” gushes an early Pharrell Williams after Ye shows him a snippet of ‘Through the Wire’, the aforementioned jaw-wired-shut track, in Act II. He runs down the hallway, shaking his head in disbelief. “That’s real. You’re gonna make it and when you do, keep the same perspective and hunger.”
The first two episodes centre around the beginnings of Ye’s career as he creates his debut album The College Dropout, a process that spreads itself out due to the people around him not believing in his same vision. In one scene, he’s seen rapping verses to his hit ‘All Falls Down’ to mid-level executives at Roc-A-Fella, all of which stay unimpressed and unphased (which is a rather funny thing to look back on). But he doesn’t give up. Instead, he just finds someone else to rap to. The reactions of others, he’s learnt, mean nothing to the beliefs of his own. Eventually, someone is going to have to listen.
And soon enough, people did. In what seems like a flick-of-the-switch moment, Ye suddenly goes from an unknown producer to one of the biggest rappers in the world, a shift that only adds more fuel to his fire. After 2004’s The College Dropout shot to number 2 on the Billboard 200, Ye finally earned the critical acclaim he deserved, and the masses started quickly lining up behind him. What do you do when the whole world suddenly starts watching? You slip into a curated role, and you give them a show.
From a slightly awkward, hungry beatmaker in his early days to a boastful messiah in his between and later ones, it’s not hard to see how Ye significantly changed. But jeen-yuhs pulls back the curtain to reveal why. Like anyone, Ye’s pivotal moments stand out like blips on a timeline, and seeing behind-the-scenes footage of some of the biggest Ye events helps us to understand the man behind the mania. It’s become easy to separate the personality from the music, his social media shenanigans of course aren’t a reflection of his artistry, but with jeen-yuhs we see how the two have always been connected. After all, there has never been a more intimate look into the rapper’s life and mindset, and all it takes is an explanation from Ye to make us understand his motives. He might get it wrong sometimes, but he’s almost always coming from a good place. “Should I tweet that?” He asks Coodie in one scene, holding up his phone to the camera to reveal a draft tweet. “I need a translator real bad sometimes.” He laughs.
But the heart of Ye is not himself. In fact, it’s not even completely his art, but his mother Donda. The only person the star loves more than himself, the relationship between the two was truly beautiful, and it dips in and out of the documentary to ground Ye. Seeing the unconditional support Donda gave her son (a scene where she recites Ye’s early raps word for word is a heart-warming highlight), it’s easy to see why Ye believes in himself as much as he does. When you grow up in an environment that encourages you to fly as high as you want, why would you purposely clip your wings? The bigger Ye got, the more he wanted his mother around. Donda, in every way possible, was Ye’s other half, and when she tragically passed away in 2007, half of him died too.
It was around this time that Coodie and Ye started to part ways, and we see the distance reflected in the lack of footage. (They would eventually link back up around 2016’s Life of Pablo). Instead of intimate glimpses into a bright-eyed hustler’s come up, we’re sent into a frenzy of fan videos and news footage from Ye’s tumultuous years. In the wake of Donda’s death, Ye never stopped working. A clip from a gig one week later shows him in a frustrated rant onstage, insisting that despite everyone telling him to take a break he’s going to keep going because that’s what his mother would’ve wanted. And keep going he did, moving at high-speed down the road until everything came to a screeching halt in recent years. Ye’s latest album Donda is the first time the star ever fully processed his mother’s death, and it provides the answers, and apologies, for a lot of the star’s mistakes.
There’s a lot to be said about someone like Kanye West. While understandably he gets his fair share of criticisms, it’s worth noting that unconventional people are often misunderstood in a conventional society. Ye truly is a magnificent mind trapped in a body he can’t seem to escape from, and the battle of that is what we’ve seen unfold for the better part of 20 years. Jeen-yuhs, in all its entirety, paints the complex picture of a complex star, reminding us that underneath all the chaos, lights and swagger there’s that same geeky kid just wanting to make music worth taking notice of.
Commonly known as the Icarus complex, the tale of Icarus and the sun serves as a reminder of personal limitations and the danger of excessive ambition, but perhaps we’re missing the point. While Icarus’ passion might’ve been reckless, flying too low caused arguably more danger than its alternative. There’s just as much risk in the balance as there is in the extreme, and maybe sometimes it’s better to enjoy the feeling of flying just because you don’t know when you will again. Maybe sometimes, it’s better to get burned than to not fly at all.
Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy is available to stream in full on Netflix here.