Saturday, April 13Royal Holloway's offical student publication, est. 1986

From Backpacks to One Billion Racks

As one of the most controversial celebrities of our generation, any mention of Kanye West is sure to ignite a passionate debate. Just today making even more questionnable news with his latest music video release, separating the artist from his art becomes more of a struggle each day. But will the memories behind the music be his saving grace?

Starting his journey from humble beginnings, Kanye West rode into the music industry on sheer determination, undeniable passion and an unwavering belief that he would be one of the greatest. As a sought after producer in the hip hop scene, West channelled his creativity through the beats, delivering a quality sound for established artists like Jay-Z, Mos Def and Talib Kweli. But he wanted more. Tired of creating and catering to the sound of others, West was ready to contribute his own flavour to the industry. 

Steering away from the guns and gangbanigng narrative that many rappers had relied upon, this backpack wearing producer turned rapper tapped into unexplored aspects of life through his music. All the while keeping the hooks catchy and the flows tight, he had a message to send and something to prove. In his three part Netflix documentary Jeen-Yuhs, directed by close friends and fellow creatives Clarence “Coodie” Simmons and Chike Ozah, admirers and haters alike get an insight into the polarising celebrity’s career origins like never before. Narrated from the outside perspective, so close to the talent yet still not able to gauge the inner workings of his mind, this documentary places the audience in the passenger seat of a crazy ride. 

“I got some songs on my heart that the world needs to hear”

Kanye West to MTV News’ You Heard it First, 2002
Photo by Axel Antas-Bergkvist on Unsplash

Act One: Vision

An episode of context for the seven hour documentary we never knew we needed, act one explains why we are all here. Filmed by comedian and former Channel Zero host Coodie, the documentary opens in the Dominican Republic with Kanye West, capturing him in his element. As he flits between putting down a new rhyme and taking the phone call to put things in place for his documentary, the somewhat chaotic energy. Often unable to decipher the motivations behind what Kanye West puts out into the world, whether it be outlandish tweets or capitalised Instagram captions, the VCR reel of home footage and an scenes of an early 2000’s superstar in the making suggests that we are going to get our understanding.

After meeting during the late 1990’s, Coodie embarked on a journey of filming West, forsaking his stand up comedy career for the chance to capture the growth of the renowned producer who was ready to become an artist of his own. Through the lens, we as an audience get the intimate view of the hunger and determination that West possessed to prove himself as a stand alone name. Using his production prowess to form connections within the industry, Kanye used those openings as a way to let it be known that he had something to say. Simultaneously working on his own music, the grind did not stop. Everyone saw the hustle and the talent, but they weren’t ready for what would come to be known as the self proclaimed and even publicly supported genius. 

“Man, I got aspirations. I got big dreams, motherfucker!”

– Kanye west

Act Two: Purpose

Wrapped up now in the struggles that West had to go through in order to establish himself at Roc Nation, the uphill battle was sure to bring great reward. But with the setback of a life changing car crash that would leave the rapper’s jaw shattered, it would prove that life is never without its challenges. As Coodie captures the behind the scenes of tearful doctor’s appointments and an evident frustration from the artist, one thing remained constant. Relying on the music to carry him through, West continues rapping through the wire, leading to the creation of his hit inspired by his reality. This second installment of the documentary not only shows the drive of Kanye but also shows that regardless of everything he would not let anything stop him.

Surrounded by the support of his team and the constant encouraging words of his mother Donda, the crash was just another moment in his life that would be used as a tool to reach his goals. Coodie’s constant recording of the events leading up to West’s success contributed to the production of the music video for Through the Wire, capturing the like minded awe of the slightly muffled talented rhymes that were coming through the speakers. This was it. With awards flooding in, finally garnering the industry recognition that he had always desired, West’s freshman album College Dropout set the tone for a new era of hip hop. 

Act Three: Awakening

With the success of his album, the limelight shone hot on Kanye West and so birthed the outspoken persona. As focus continued to draw towards him, the confidence that had evidently always existed leading up to his fame was now being watched by a greater audience. Unfortunately with this came an influx of negativity with the varying perceptions of this eccentric character. Circles grew bigger, slowly but surely pushing out the original support system that once existed, and Coodie’s intimate capturings of studio sessions and mother son talks slowly evolved into side stage entourage snap shots and peaks through the thick crowds of after show gatherings.

As a result, the videographer and his muse drifted apart, giving way for the former host to focus on his own life whilst simultaneously watching the whirlwind of Mr West’s life unravelling on the tv screen. From stage ambushes, questionable political support and public outburst, the person that we had been following through the eyes of his closest confidant became unrecognisable. But as the senior Clarence Simmons had passed on to Coodie “everything happens for a reason”. Reuniting years later, the original duo, both products of the life changing events leading up to this point, still found that common ground through their creative minds. 

Love him or hate him, this documentary was more than a spotlight shone on the artist himself. A story of perseverance, unapologetic pride, and an unshakable love for the music, this documentary perfectly captures the artist in perfect harmony with his art. With many tears shed and the warmth of nostalgia as we watch the hits of Kanye West being born, the emotional journey of Jeen-Yuhs is one worth taking.