Made from footage shot by his old Chi friend Clarence ‘Coodie’ Simmons on a handheld camera (with collaborator Chike Ozah), the documentary starts in 2002, the year rap was deep in the peak of its thugged-out pop swagger, the year of Clipse’s ‘Grindin’’, Cam’ron’s ‘Oh Boy’, and Lil Jon’s ‘Get Low’. The first part of jeen-yuhs, ‘VISION’, charts how it was Ye’s production on ‘Izzo H.O.V.A.’ on Jay Z’s rap masterpiece The Blueprint (2001) that first opened the doors to his Roc-A-Fella deal and debut album The College Dropout (2004). But breaking through in the era of Hova’s peak wasn’t easy for the striped-polo shirt and backpack wearing Kanye.
If Ye is Jesus, We Are the Romans
American Rap is dynastic: a pantheon of stars each amassing their millions before passing opportunities onto the next contender. On ‘Ultralight Beam’, the opening track of Kanye West’s seventh studio album The Life of Pablo and one of his best songs – a sublime work of gospel with choral vocals circling on Black pain – Chance clamours 'I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail.' But as the newly released three-part Netflix documentary jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy makes very clear to the viewer, Kanye’s place at the top of rap’s dynasty was never guaranteed.
"American Rap is dynastic: a pantheon of stars each amassing their millions"
Despite the constant praise for his abilities, rap’s gatekeepers didn’t know where to place Kanye – mostly happier if he was behind the mixing desk than letting him take the mic. It wasn’t until his verse on ‘The Bounce’ on Jay-Z’s follow-up The Blueprint 2 that anyone started to take the mic talent of everyone’s favourite maniacal narcissist seriously. And the doors opened slowly. College Dropout wouldn’t appear for another two years.
"Kanye’s place at the top of rap’s dynasty was never guaranteed"
After the success of Kanye's first album, the gates opened. But so did the controversies that have littered Kanye's career. In part two of jeen-yuhs Pharrell, then the most important producer in rap apart from maybe Timbaland, is listening to the finished single of ‘Through the Wire’. The Neptunes producer is inscrutable. Does he hate it? He walks out the room before returning to tell Ye he’s a genius. After, he offers Kanye a stark set of warnings about the trappings of fame and how to keep your head. Watching this warning to Kanye from wayback, the viewer is led to consider the extent to which the rapper who calls himself Yeezus and has even released a song called 'I am a God' has managed to do so.
"rap’s gatekeepers didn’t know where to place Kanye"
Fans and critics regularly split Kanye West’s career in half; there’s the early rap years and the later extravagant and deranged pop experiments. This divide fits with the proliferation of the prodigy’s interests, such as the design work, the changes in his fashion style, and his increased consideration of what the music videos and tour sets look like. It was in 2011 that it was rumoured Kanye applied to study an MA in fashion at Central St Martin’s, the year after the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and typically seen as the first album of the second half of Ye’s career to date. And it is from this point on that Ye becomes increasingly interested in breaking boundaries.
It’s true that there is a marked change in his productions from MBDTF onward. One I would define as a stylistic disintegration: a process of breaking coherency and structure, where the pop elements become more aggressively hyperactive as the scales of the production become multiplied and he starts stealing work and samples from the musical avant-garde, a millionaire magpie (the exception perhaps being Jesus is King, an album I don’t care for much — and the jury is still out on Donda). As the egomania increases, the tracks themselves become less and less interested in being finished songs as such. Everything becomes intensely pressurised. The beats are harsh and noisy. The samples are hypnotic loops of derangement. It all just about holds together – but it’s easy to imagine another version of the song where it all falls down.
"Ye becomes increasingly interested in breaking boundaries"
One thing that the interviews with Ye in jeen-yuhs reveal is that there is remarkable consistency in his character, even when he’s a fresh-faced nerd. He often speaks excitedly about belief in creativity, and about occupying the role of the Artist.
Fundamental to Kanye’s self-positioning as an artist is that everything is part of the art, like a fusion of the worldviews of Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol, performed with the irrepressible egoic certainty of Muhammed Ali. But while Beuys said 'School is universal,' Ye always wants to maintain the singular position of being the college dropout, the outsider, the failure who was never expected to succeed and did anyway (which the documentary infers was part of Kanye’s temporary identification with and support of Donald Trump).
"the college dropout, the outsider, the failure who was never expected to succeed and did anyway"
In spite of the obvious controversies and the insufferable egomania, what I love about the music, performance, and personae of Kanye West is the aggressive commitment to exploring multiple conflicting registers – often within the space of a few bars. And for all of the talk of aggressive stylistic breaks, any keen listener of Kanye West knows about the consistencies in his aesthetic interests.
Kanye has always been fascinated by performing an absolutely honest set of extremities: flirting with the devils, demons, and monsters before turning back to face God, and maybe catching his own reflection. He often switches from ardent passion about poverty to gloating about his personal wealth. In the later music, this aggressive work of contrasts becomes more present at the level of style. In ‘Blood on the Leaves’ from Yeezus, for example, the track samples a Nina Simone vocal from ‘Strange Fruit’, a song about lynching, while Kanye raps 'all of that cocaine on the table you can’t snort that,' as if it were a challenge.
It’s in ‘Jesus Walks’ from College Dropout that Kanye first intimated to us his performance of a battle between God and the Devil: 'God show me the way because the devil’s trying to break me down,' and twelve years later the vocals on ‘Ultralight Beam’ switch between praising and decrying a benevolent and cruel God: 'Why oh why do you do me wrong? You persecute the weak because it makes you feel so strong,' and: 'So I look to the light to make these wrongs turn right, head up high I look to the light.'
"in ‘Jesus Walks’ from College Dropout that Kanye first intimated to us his performance of a battle between God and the Devil"
One way of viewing Kanye’s public performance of the exposed and wriggling ego, this superstar of rap, the richest Black man in America, and of understanding his constant proclamations that he is a God, or the son of God, is that it tells us less about the spiritual realm than it does the earthly terrain. He’s not the son of God, he’s a very naughty, multi-millionaire rap star.
Kanye’s actions, or happenings as Beuys would have put it, over the last ten years have been a public performance in the war of and the war on the ego of celebrity. This is why he’s obsessed with saying he’s Jesus. It’s not important whether he thinks that he is the Son of God or not (after all, we are all God’s children). But the role of a celebrity Jesus figure, as an artist, is being the public persona who receives the punishment and cruelty that binds society together.
"He’s not the son of God, he’s a very naughty, multi-millionaire rap star"
As YouTube philosopher Natalie Wynn argues, celebrity culture is partly the sphere of producing mass resentment. And in the body of Christ, or the ego of Kanye, all the hatred that is directed toward it reflects back the disingenuousness of the terrible community, the hypocrisy, the narcissism of moral certainty, and the necessity of social climbing. If Kanye says he is Yeezus, it’s not because he is the son of God, but because we are the Romans.
Of the many cruelties of public life, one is that it is an arena that thrives on the suppressed cruelty and hidden pleasures of scapegoats and defamation. The accentuated Black-male ego at the centre of Kanye’s music and performances over the last twelve years has often laid this bare. But jeen-yuhs also gives us an insight into the vulnerability behind this performance, the life of the real person risked in an exposure we never asked for (but love to enjoy anyway). As Kanye says on ‘Jesus Walks': 'Most of all we at war with ourselves.'
By Ed Luker