Coodie’s Camcorder aesthetic | Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye West Trilogy Film Review

“… you have a lot of confidence that come off a little arrogant even though you’re humble.
But it be important to remember that the giant looks in the mirror and sees nothing.”

Donda West

The task I’ve been assigned, quite clearly, is to review the documentary film jeen-yuhs. Not the man, nor the music; articles on which Headstuff is already somewhat replete. In fact, focusing on jeen-yuhs as a film allows us to consider not just the product of its filmmaker’s vision first and foremost, but also the way that it encompasses the subject and his work in a fresh light. A new perspective unmarred by the extravagances of Ye’s tabloid trajectories.

Ye may have made a small furore about his ownership over the final cut in the run-up to its film (“the control over his own image”), and this is nothing new in the history of popular music: as early as the 60s and 70s, we can think of Bob Dylan directing and editing D.A. Pennebaker’s un-refined Eat The Document, or Leon Russell producing Les Blank’s A Poem is a Naked Person, or Jerry Garcia overseeing creative decisions on The Grateful Dead Movie. But this is
still Coodie’s film; as its director, and even as its other, less prominent subject. Since, this is indeed also a story about his friendship with the man. (Chike is credited here as a director as well, but apart from a few key mentions in the film, his seeming absence within the events and the film’s narrative are a mystery to me).

The documentary, as the title indicates, is divided into three feature-length sections: act i. VISION; act ii. PURPOSE; and act iii. AWAKENING; spanning a dramatic 4 hours 30 minutes. Despite this structure and Coodie’s soulful narration, the film feels more like a home-video compilation, as per the camcorder aesthetic and the intimate nature of Ye’s interactions.

If there is a resounding theme presiding over the documentary, at least over its first two acts, it is undoubtedly Ye’s struggle for legitimacy and success as a rapper (i.e. a fully-fledged artist), rather than simply the accomplished beat-maker for innumerable established performers. This is then concluded with a final chapter dealing with Ye’s mental health struggles and recording sessions during some of his most tumultuous appearances, including his ongoing born-again phase and the short-lived presidential run.

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With the exception of the scenes filmed over the last 5 years, Coodie gives us basic camcorder footage – warm, personal, scratchy. This is also complemented by ambient synth melodies, enhancing the home-video aesthetic with nostalgic overtones; the same vibes as that Buddy Ross sample from Frank Ocean’s “Futura Free” – that shopping-mall echo of innocent, adolescent voices. Overlooking Coodie’s personal connection to the project is impossible.

The main narrative strand of the first two chapters comprises Ye’s efforts to get signed by either Roc-A-Fella or Rawkus Records, building clout and creating his own opportunities where he can in order to make this a reality, including impressing the likes of Mos Def and Pharrell, and even recording with Jamie Foxx at his home studio (for “Slow Jamz”). If outside observers recline from acknowledging Ye’s talent, often understandable given his public stunts, one need only watch his ‘two-word’ freestyle backstage with Mos Def; a jokey, off-the-cuff riff that West develops into an extended cascade of passion and even social commentary.

Similarly, a key scene shows West getting Scarface for a potential feature on “Jesus Walks.” After gently berating the younger rapper for leaving his retainer next to the mixing desk, Scarface fumbles around, rummaging his head for lyrics but quietly praising the beat. Then Ye puts on “Family Business,” a phenomenal track and perhaps the most fitting tonal representation of this period of his life. After giving further (soft-spoken) positivity, Scarface eventually leaves the studio and Coodie informs us he never ended up recording anything for West.

Although a disheartening moment at first, you realise something important, just as Coodie does with his camera: Ye’s about to bring something different to the playing field, and the image of Scarface exiting the door is the departure of an old world, making way for the new. Even if Ye has since disavowed the term, this is arguably the moment he personally consolidated his status as a “backpack rapper,” creating lyrical content that transcended the gangster materialism which so often is propped up as hip-hop’s most enduring cliche. Footage like this – that almost miraculously records the mercurial truth of Ye’s personality – lends a sustaining power to the film, coming as a relief to Ye’s bolder version of a kind of forced performativity in front of the camera, always aware of its presence.

As expected, Donda’s presence in Kanye’s life is featured heavily, portrayed as an incredibly wise and open woman, proud and supportive of her son’s vision, and warm to all of his friends. Alongside two scenes in her apartment which includes mother and son singing to “Hey, Mama,” we see them on the porch of West’s childhood home in Southside Chicago. Knowing the effect that her death will have on Ye – the dark shift his work will take with Donda as a recurring theme of loss and regret – sheds further poignancy on the clips.

This intimacy of the footage is frankly staggering. It is a much-needed demonstration of its subject’s vulnerability; not the dark, broken variety expressed in his last few albums, but the boyish yet focused hunger for acceptance and recognition of his vision. But Coodie also goes back to his own childhood home and reunites with his family after a long time; again, this is also his journey, his film, and we start to see Coodie’s own personality come somewhat to the fore, later becoming more complicated as Ye reaches new successes.

In PURPOSE, we open with super early footage of a 13-year old Kanye rapping to the lens at a birthday party. It’s an interesting hark-back to a scene from the first episode, in which Ye prowls the offices of Roc-A-Fella Records, performing his new mixes in front of unwitting secretaries and marketing officers in the hopes of getting even a toe in the door. This episode also marks one of the defining moments of Ye’s beginnings: in 2002, a car crash resulted in a fractured jaw, with Ye getting his jaw temporarily wired shut. This in turn led to Ye’s writing and recording “Through the Wire”, no less with the indication that the music video, paid out of his own pockets and directed by Coodie using his footage from the dental appointments, led to the rapper’s signing with Roc-A-Fella. After which, followed superstar ascension, the Grammys, and a forked path between director and subject.

It would be remiss to ignore the question of Coodie’s relationship with West as his primary documentarian. Coodie’s faith in Ye as a future hit-maker is admirable, the former having left his burgeoning career as the host of Channel Zero to follow Ye and his ascension. But on Ye’s part, i.e. to contract Coodie to follow him around at such an early stage of his career, the film reveals the musician’s early predilection for his own myth-making. From the get-go, this is a man who knew how he wanted to appear to the world and this was only the beginning.

Though Coodie shows us BTS footage from TV interviews as they are being filmed, a different angle on Ye doesn’t deter from the image that this man has created of himself. In that sense, “purpose” suggests not simply the artist’s destiny, but a reference to the intentions behind the conception of the documentary itself. Coodie often leaves in awkward encounters; to his credit, these sections clearly demonstrate his intention – to let the footage speak for itself.

This aspect comes into relief as we move onto final chapter AWAKENING. In a humbling opening scene from the Dropout days, Rhymefest challenges Ye’s claims to genius and greatness, saying, “It’s for other people to look at you and say, “That man’s a genius. […] A genius (sic).” He speaks for many of us who might question the integrity and depth of West’s other endeavours, and it’s the set-up for a bookmark within various sections of the last episode, in which Ye’s power, even in his ‘private’ moments (recorded on camera, that is) occasionally suggest the air of a tyrant unleashed on a ‘yes man’ that’s stepped out of line. After Kanye admits it is time for them to move on to new things, Coodie narrates, “Kanye said he wasn’t ready for the world to see the real him. He told me he was acting now.” The picture suddenly becomes very clear.

We then leap forward in time, flash-cutting over key milestones in the artist’s life and career that catapulted him into cultural hegemony, whether it’s the decadent game-changers (808s, Fantasy, Yeezus etc.) or the myriad media appearances that have passed into historical notoriety, as well as Coodie’s own life (having a family, and directing music videos for other big names). Since The College Dropout, Ye’s been absent from Coodie’s life, while becoming so prevalent in ours. But in 2016, on the cusp of The Life of Pablo, Coodie reunites with him, going on to continue their fly-on-the-wall dynamic, documenting The Kids See Ghosts recording sessions with Kid Cudi, the presidential campaign, meetings with future collaborators in the music and fashion worlds, and images from last summer’s listening parties for Donda.

This (disrupted) structure marked by the time jump is perhaps inescapable, since Coodie simply doesn’t have the footage. Using secondary sources to at least partly convey the nature of the rigorous recording sessions for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or Ye’s personal (but well-publicised) shenanigans would be a dramatically regressive move; TMZ and numerous collaborator interviews on YouTube can fill those gaps for you.

“I knew Kanye, but I had never met Yeezy,” Coodie says. Somehow, though we know what Ye became, Coodie’s anticipation to bear witness to this transformation is palpable. Even if, when we see Ye again, he is altogether human. Bent out of shape, but recognisably a ‘normal’ presence. Indeed, there is a growing realisation on the part of the filmmaker that he doesn’t understand him any more. “He’s going through something,” he says in a rare direct address to the camera. Occasionally reaching that same level of distress in Brett Morgen’s Montage of Heck, jeen-yuhs hits a tonal rock bottom. Whereas we previously noted Coodie’s sensibility to leave the tape running, scenes here often leave you wishing to turn it off, feeling like enough eyes have watched this giant crumble already.

So what do we learn? Truthfully, there is no homecoming here; Coodie inevitably fails to tie this story up neatly, but he is wise to not attempt it. Instead we finish with a prayer and an implied disavowal of genius itself as a term that ultimately can only relate to God. In the moment, such applications to an artist are futile, especially towards one as impenetrable as Kanye West, who seems to be cracking under the turbulence of his own self-manufactured cult of personality. With Coodie’s film, we can at least be secure in the knowledge that, even if it’s not genius, there is at least a man and a great artist under there somewhere, currently “going through something” that no publicist can spin. Dear God, make it alright.

Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye West Trilogy is currently streaming on Netflix.

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