It’s 2020 and the rapper, producer, businessman and fashion designer Kanye West is in the Dominican Republic. Putting down his microphone, he casually mentions the two things he just “wants to cover right now”. One is running for President of the United States.
It’s a fitting opening for jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy, capturing its protagonist’s erraticism, ambition and utter self-belief. The three-part documentary, streaming on Netflix from 16 February, follows Kanye’s rise from dorky Chicago-based record producer to one of the most influential artists in the world (and self-described creative genius).
Co-director Clarence “Coodie” Simmons has been working on the documentary for quite a while. A stand-up comic who also ran the public access TV show Channel Zero, Coodie was immersing himself in Chicago’s independent hip-hop scene – where one name kept coming up. At the time, Kanye West was performing with the rap group the Go Getters. But the young Kanye’s main USP was as a producer of other artists’ records. Soon, he had moved to New York to work with some of the biggest hip-hop artists around. By 2000, Kanye’s talent was enough to convince Coodie to leave his comedy career behind and to spend the next 20 years filming the rapper.
Since then, Kanye has had ten studio albums, 22 Grammys, married (and then split from) Kim Kardashian, launched his own line of trainers, said that slavery “sounds like a choice”, established his own gospel choir and church service, endorsed Donald Trump, run for president himself and had several very public meltdowns. Back then though, he was struggling to even get a record deal.
“Most people just saw Kanye as a young producer who could hook them up with beats,” says Coodie. While this shouldn’t be a problem for a youngster aspiring to make it in the music industry, it was a problem for Kanye. He was successful early (at just 24 he produced five tracks on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint album) but he was always the one behind the mixing desk, never in front of the mic. Clad in knitwear and often seen wearing a dental retainer (his unhygienic habit of removing it and placing it on the surfaces around him is on full display in the first episode), the early Kanye is earnest and endearing, struggling to be taken seriously as the performer he so desperately wants to be. In one scene, he heads to Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, playing his music and rapping over it in the offices of various staff members in an attempt to persuade the label to sign him. He’s largely ignored.
But despite the setbacks, Kanye’s fierce ambition and belief in himself is evident from the start. When he talks of his debut album, then still in the works, Kanye says how he’s going to do it “the way I fucking wanna do it… There shouldn’t be no way for me to lose”. In another scene, still without a record deal, he tells a journalist how he’s already practiced his Grammys speech.
It’s an attitude nurtured by his mother, Donda. “You’ve gotta have some oomph about you,” she says as she comforts her son after he’s returned to Chicago. Kanye’s boyish enthusiasm and his mother’s pride in him as he then regales her with stories of working in the studio with Jay-Z is joyful to watch.
But this self-belief, while endearing in the context of the first episode, has since morphed into a trait that Kanye is now known for the world over – an arrogance of almost unbelievable proportions: “I am unquestionably, undoubtedly, the greatest human artist of all time,” he told Zane Lowe in 2019. His Messiah complex is on full display – his 2013 track I am a God includes the line “I know [Jesus is] the most high, but I am a close high”.
He’s been accused of blasphemy, but Kanye’s Christianity is integral to him. In 2019 he released his album Jesus is King, and that same year established Sunday Service – a choir that gathers for celebrity-laden worship sessions and whose services have centered around Kanye and his relationship with God rather than around God himself. (For more on this, do read Tortoise journalist Xavier Greenwood’s excellent piece from 2019.)
Jeen-yuhs captures Kanye’s creativity, vulnerability, raw authenticity, charisma and self belief – it all adds up to make him compulsively watchable. “There was no doubt in my mind that he would be a star,” says Coodie at the start of Act I. For all his flaws, you can see why.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
Chloe (BBC iPlayer)
Becky from Bristol is living with her mum and working in a job she hates as an office temp. But when Chloe, an influencer Becky follows dies, she seizes the opportunity to infiltrate her grieving circle of friends. Armed with some designer clothes and an upper-middle-class accent, Becky is utterly convincing as “Sasha”, pretending to her newfound circle of friends that she’s just returned from a job marketing for galleries in Japan. But what’s really motivating Becky? Was Chloe really just an online presence for her? Luckily, you don’t have to wait – all episodes of this pacey Bristol-based thriller are available to binge on BBC iPlayer.
The Tinder Swindler (Netflix)
Online dating can throw up some interesting characters. But the son of a billionaire diamond mogul, who sends you bouquets and Facetimes you to tell you he misses you? It could all be too good to be true. And, it turns out, it is. Because soon Simon Leviev, the man these women have matched on the dating app Tinder, is telling them his security has been compromised and his vast wealth temporarily sealed off. So it’s up to his love interests to supply him with the necessary funds. A shocking story of fraud, this is all the better for its format as a single feature rather than a multi-part series. After the disappointment of Tiger King 2, this is a welcome return to form for Netflix’s true crime section.
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (Disney +)
“Let’s assume you will all have seen Belfast, The Power of the Dog and Dune by the time the Oscars ceremony comes around in March. Going further down the list of nominations announced on Tuesday, let’s just pick one absolute gem you might have overlooked: Summer of Soul, more than 50 years in the making and one of five movies nominated for Best Documentary Feature.
Questlove, the brilliant drummer in The Roots, directs a labour of love, taking 40 hours of unseen footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and turning it into a cultural, political statement that still speaks volumes. Spanning six weekends on a free stage at the top of Central Park, the festival overlapped with Woodstock – and while the importance of one has been overstated ever since, what happened in Harlem had been substantially forgotten.
Thankfully the inspiring performances of the Staple Singers, Sly and the Family Stone and Nina Simone are now being seen again for the first time since they performed live.
And what kind of movie do you get when the director is a drummer? One that opens with a drum solo, of course – and not just any old filler. Watch 19-year-old Stevie Wonder raising hell, then give Questlove a little gold statue.” David Taylor, Editor
Notes on an Execution – Danya Kukafka (Orion)
Ansel Packer is due to be executed in just 12 hours. On death row for the murder of several women, his inevitable death ticks towards him as the novel flicks between his final hours and previous chapters of his life. A critique of the serial killer genre, Kukafka’s novel pulls apart the idea that we should be fascinated by the romantic complexities of serial killers that films, books and podcasts have so frequently pushed. Packer isn’t romantic or complex – he’s awful, and he’s always been awful, even as a child when he would kill and torture animals. Instead, Notes on an Execution focuses on various women who, although not his direct victims, have had their lives affected by him in some way. A far more interesting examination of a serial killer’s impact than pop culture usually manages.
Black Cake – Chermaine Wilkinson (Penguin)
When Benny and Byron, two siblings who don’t get on, are brought back together by the death of their mother Eleanor, they’re played a recording by her lawyer full of revelations. Eleanor has also left a slice of her signature rum and port-laden “black cake” in the freezer, instructing the siblings to sit together and eat it together when the time is right (“You’ll know when”). Transporting the reader across borders and generations, Wilkinson tells a story of the bonds, secrets and resentment that every family experiences.
On Bloody Sunday: A New History Of The Day And Its Aftermath By Those Who Were There – Julieann Campbell (Octopus)
Just over 50 years ago, on 30 January 1972, 13 civil rights marchers were shot dead by the British army in Derry, Northern Ireland, in what was initially said to be an “IRA gun battle”, but was later found to have been a massacre instigated by the British army firing first. Written by historian Julieann Campbell, whose uncle Jackie Duddy was the day’s first victim (at just 17, he was one of seven teenage boys killed), On Bloody Sunday is a moving – and vital – account of an appalling incident which still haunts Britain.
Jonny Greenwood – The Power of the Dog
Keen ears will notice a distinctively dissonant musical undercurrent to some of this year’s Oscar nominations. Jonny Greenwood, better known as lead guitarist for Radiohead, is up for scoring Best Picture frontrunner The Power of the Dog. In case that wasn’t enough, he also scored Spencer starring Best Actress nominee Kristen Stewart and has a track on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza. Fans of Radiohead won’t be surprised that Greenwood has become the “one to have” for Hollywood scores. His combinations of soft piano, soaring violin, looping transient melodies, echoing his own influence on his bandmate Thom Yorke, are works of art in their own right. But thanks are mainly due to Anderson for Greenwood’s film career, asking him to score There Will be Blood in 2007, then going on to do the same for Inherent Vice (2014) and Phantom Thread (2017). Speaking to Terry Gross at NPR this week, Greenwood was asked about how he got such a distinctive eerie-yet-gentle piano sound on his Phantom Thread tracks. He replied that it came from laying down felt across the hammers, but also sheepishly admitted it was in part down to his laziness in booking a piano tuner. Phoebe Davis, Reporter
The gods we can touch – Aurora
The Norwegian singer’s third album is filled with the kind of melancholic synths that have characterised her sound since her debut release in 2015. Recorded in a small 400-year-old castle near Aurora’s native Bergen in Norway, the record is ethereal but never feels flimsy, with the livelier highlights including ‘Giving into the love’, ‘The Innocent’ and ‘Cure for me’. A good one for a long drive.
Have a lovely weekend, and stay safe.
All the best,
Photographs Getty Images, Angel Laws/Wikipedia, Netflix, BBC