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Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy Review: The Old Kanye

The public fascination with Kanye West as a celebrity now far outweighs any interest in his music. Whereas his once-unparalleled run of boundary-pushing albums, spanning from his 2004 debut "The College Dropout" to his last widely heralded record "The Life of Pablo," helped make his behavior easier to tolerate, now the ongoing reality show that is his life is the only thing largely keeping him in the media's glare. You'd be hard pressed to find anybody outside of his diehard fanbase who can name a single song from his last three albums — but they could tell you all about the celebrity feuds, the presidential run, and his current, very messy divorced dad era.

"Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy," a documentary trilogy premiering across three consecutive weeks on Netflix, aims to chart the rapper's career from his early days as a producer to now, when his exploits frequently overshadow the music he's making. Only the first part of the trilogy, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, seems likely to peel back the curtain to reveal a different side of the egomaniacal star persona. It even opens with teases that later films will largely dwell on his presidential aspirations, using pre-existing archive footage in a way that suggests the intimate recordings here didn't continue for long after West's star was in the ascent. This may very well be the only film in the trilogy to truly unpack the man behind the icon (the other two films have not yet been made available for critics), and very fittingly for its subject, it makes for a fascinating but frequently frustrating watch.

The Birth of Yeezus

Directors Coodie and Chike, who made some of Kanye's earliest videos including "Through the Wire" and "Jesus Walks," introduce us to the aspiring rapper at the turn of the millennium, when he's struggling to get by as a producer. Recently moved from Chicago to New York, he sensed a big break coming when he produced several tracks for Jay-Z's "The Blueprint," and yet those credits still can't get any doors to open for him. Even Jay-Z's label is hesitant to sign him — in the film's standout sequence, he forces his way into their offices with a demo CD of "All Falls Down," performing it for anybody who will listen. Several employees politely laugh and keep taking business calls, while this future hit record plays out indifferently next to them.

All of this early footage was captured by Clarence "Coodie" Simmons, with the film not shy about his early intentions of making the "Hoop Dreams" of hip hop, charting what the co-director assumed would be Kanye's unlikely path to success. Documentary filmmakers inserting themselves into their narratives isn't a novelty, but from the film's earliest moments, it becomes clear that this is as much about Simmons' personal relationship with Kanye as it is about the rapper's struggle to get a foothold in the industry. Rather than let the early footage speak for itself, we keep hearing of Simmons' bafflement about Kanye's struggle to breakthrough, all the while emphasizing this unparalleled access to someone who would become one of the most famous men in the world.

At times, it's hard not to feel like the film should have instead been called "My Friend Kanye West," the director seemingly unaware that people aren't tuning in for his personal connection, but a glimpse at a star in the making. It's a particularly strange angle too, considering that even as a struggling musician, Kanye is the cocky, self-assured figure we'd all come to know him as — from his perspective, this project likely wasn't fueled by his friendship with the co-director so much as it was a desire for a documented account of how he would achieve icon status. The film truly excels when it focuses on its subject's constant assumptions that a big break is around the corner; in one scene, filmed in 2002, he believes a debut MTV appearance will cement his celebrity overnight, so he decides to be filmed enjoying regular activities for the last time.

Go West

The first chapter of "Jeen-Yuhs" is best in these quieter moments, when Kanye's overconfidence proves unexpectedly endearing; it raises the question of whether he could have ever predicted his career arc, or if this was all part of the meticulously laid plan from day one. There are glimpses of the deeply divisive figure that we've come to know, as is a given with anybody so upfront about their self-proclaimed genius status — but here, as he tries to get his foot on the ladder and get a record deal, he's positioned more as the most unlikely of underdogs. That the film succeeds in getting you to root for him despite an endless string of controversies in recent years might be its most significant achievement.

Prior to the film's Sundance premiere, the rapper joined the long list of musicians (most notably Alanis Morrisette and Lady Gaga) who disavowed documentaries about them prior to release, with West insisting he be allowed into the editing suite to craft a definitive version of the film he could grant his seal of approval. This never happened — the documentary is being released on schedule, after all — but the finished product appears to have his endorsement, with the star making a surprise appearance at a Netflix-hosted Q&A last week.

While this is great news for fans, who can now enjoy this peek behind the curtain without any enforced censorship upon the filmmakers, it does highlight a concern that the rest of the trilogy will hopefully correct — that because of the filmmakers' closeness to the subject, they haven't done enough to thoroughly interrogate this uniquely divisive figure. The first film ends on a note that suggests the series will eventually come to focus on Simmons and West growing apart, which isn't particularly encouraging. Do we really need to continue the story of Kanye's rise through the framework of a friendship that barely registers as a footnote to even the most dedicated of fans?

Despite the unprecedented access to its subject, "Jeen-Yuhs" is too in awe with Kanye to give us a deeper understanding of him beyond his aspirations of superstardom. That he's a more endearing figure than you'd expect is the only real bombshell here.