I recently started the documentary “jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy.” I’ve been into “Love Death + Robots” lately, but I was in the mood for something different and the trailer drew me in immediately. I hadn’t heard anything about the documentary so I didn’t have any expectations. I’ve been an off-and-on fan of Kanye for so long I was interested to learn more about his story.
It goes without saying that in recent years, Kanye has taken his reputation in some surprising directions. Starting with his interrupting Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs and culminating with his association with Trump and that bizarre conversation in the Oval Office. Many people have cancelled him or they forgive his actions and are mostly concerned for his mental health. I was ready to let him go. I loved “The College Dropout,” but hadn’t really spent time with much of his more recent work.
While I and many were moving on from Kanye, two things happened. First, a friend of mine posted a video about Kanye’s extensive contributions to hip-hop and I was moved to respect and appreciate his work. A year or so later another friend told me about his song “Waves” from The Life of Pablo album and how much it means to him, especially when he’s missing family members he’s lost, especially these lines:
“That’s just a wave / waves don’t die”
“Even when someone go away, the feelings don’t really go away”
I listened to the song that night for the first time and have returned to it on occasion ever since. I had gotten caught up in the cancel Kanye sentiment, albeit with more ambivalence than outrage, but I started to wonder if I was complicit in something more insidious than I had realized. Kanye had overcome so much to earn his legacy and “Twitter America” was ready to throw him out. It suddenly felt more haute bourgeoisie, not progressive, to snub someone like Kanye over a faux pas, associating himself with a social pariah and being generally uncouth. Similarly, when he interrupted Taylor Swift he was disrupting the gentility and respectability of the night. While everyone else in the room politely accepted the results, Kanye (likely under the influence) couldn’t hold back.
Even still, I didn’t know how to feel about the Sunday Church album and Kanye’s acceptance by the evangelical church. I was caught off guard by his connection to folks like Joel Osteen who I generally try to imagine don’t exist. Kanye’s membership in this new club became more personal for me when, while attending my grandfather’s funeral at First Baptist Dallas, the senior pastor and Fox News contributor Robert Jeffress mentioned Kanye West by name in his eulogy. He said that Kanye and my grandad were similar because they were both going to heaven when they died. I wasn’t offended by the theology of what he was saying, but I was offended by what appeared to be a name drop of a celebrity friend during a sacred moment for my family. It’s not Kanye’s fault his name was mentioned, but he did make the choice to be associated with that world.
I remember watching Kanye perform “Ultralight Beam” on SNL and thinking that he had completely lost his mind. At the end of the performance he lays down on the ground and is sort of preached over, but then he jumps up and starts talking in an incoherent way that even made the preacher furrow his brow. Eventually though, “Ultralight Beam” became one of my favorite of his songs. I don’t have a clue what they’re talking about, but the music is beautiful. Earlier this spring, I listened to the entire Donda album on a long drive to Philadelphia. That album is a work of art. There were a few moments that stood out to me while I listened, especially from the songs “God Breathed,” “Hurricane,” “Remote Control,” and “Moon.”
Having just acquainted myself with his latest album, I was primed for a documentary that would reveal more of his story. The footage featured in the film is incredible in terms of the intimate access it provides. You feel like you are in the room for every significant moment in the early career of Kanye, a musical genius demanding to be respected for his art and consistently dismissed for his persona — the industry didn’t see him as a star. He obviously has talent, but is only appreciated once his music is heard. He is constantly correcting people who refer to him as a producer and reminding them that he is a rapper. Without an album, he was claiming something that others couldn’t see. Probably the most beautiful moments in the trilogy are between Kanye and his mother, Donda. In the first episode the group visits Kanye’s mom, Donda, in her Chicago apartment. She is incredibly encouraging to Kanye and clearly a source of love and confidence. She seems to be an incredible, beautiful influence in his life and specifically, as an English professor, a source of his lyrical strength. She’s a college professor, chair of the English Department, and she has nothing but support for his first album “The College Dropout.” In another moment, she leaves with Kanye after a performance laughing and repeating specific lyrics to him as they walk.
I’m glad to have come back around to Kanye. He is unpredictable, philosophically confusing, and often unrefined, while also incredibly talented and hard-working. The documentary, filmed and directed by Coodie, was a reminder to me that the antidote to cancel culture is intimacy, friendship, and appreciation. Coodie carried his camera from city to city, record label to record label, because he believed in Kanye. I would imagine that he made this documentary because he still appreciates him and wanted others to know his story. It reminds me of the lyrics of “We don’t care” in the sense that Kanye continues to reinvent and reclaim himself. “We wasn’t supposed to make it past twenty-five / Joke’s on you, we still alive.”