Knowing the polarizing person he has become, watching the earliest days of West’s career is a head-spinning experience.
Over the weekend, among a deluge of disconcerting posts about his ex-partner Kim Kardashian and her boyfriend — which he would apologize for and partially acknowledge as potential harassment — Ye included one that shifted toward an earnest, reflective tone.
“How great is it to be a free artist,” he wrote on a since-deleted post. “I fought for my family. We had Sunday Service. Trended over the Super Bowl with my kids. Odell gave me and my kids his gloves. Dre performed. Rams won. And I did a Super Bowl commercial with McDonalds. God has a plan. Love over fear. Today was awesome.”
It was a surprising message, in part because it came amid a stream of unhinged photos of private text messages and threats toward Pete Davidson, but also because Ye seemed to suddenly reveal a sense of perspective, of child-like wonder. To watch act i: VISION, the first and wholly fascinating part of Netflix’s triptych docuseries jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy, is to see the artist with this kind of tone — of looking back reflectively and gratefully from the top of a mountain — but on a macro scale and with a tangled mixture of emotional conflict.
The first film focuses on the early years of Ye’s career, when the film’s co-director, Coodie, saw potential in an up-and-coming producer from Chicago and began to film him as he struggled to make his way in the world of hip-hop. Watching these scrappy days of Ye — fresh-faced, dogged, but also at times almost helpless and, implausibly, rather small — juxtaposed with the real-time antics of present Ye, who is still reaching new levels of divisiveness and influence as a truly singular cultural figure, is at once jarring, joyful, and tragic. While this weekend was another slice-of-life of our most chaotic superstar, here he is on film shyly offering a dap to Pharrell and Jay-Z. There again, he is embarrassingly taking retainers out of his mouth to rap in front of Black Star and Scarface.
It is, in short, a head-spinning, often heartbreaking work as it interacts with current reality: few artist documentaries, if any, manage to have the privilege of this kind of broad retrospection — where small moments, with the benefit of time, are elevated to candid glimpses into history being literally made — while the subject itself is still, for better or worse, stirring the culture with the same forcefulness as ever before. For years, we’ve been told about a sweeping documentary in the making, that Ye always had cameras capturing golden footage of some of his most defining moments (it’s what, presumably, gave us those bombshell receipts on the “Famous”/Taylor Swift feud).
But, paradoxically, this first part of the trilogy is arguably the most satisfying and illuminating, because it is completely detached from the controversial, larger-than-life persona that he’s been defined by for nearly two decades. It is the Kanye before even the Old Kanye, let alone Ye — the far more tempered underdog, before the masses had spent time or had the sensational material to pick apart or try to understand him (an inherently impossible task). It is a story of the superstar as a striving artist. Director duo Coodie and Chike smartly let the footage speak for itself; if there is a star who cannot be encapsulated by a documentary, it is Ye, and act i is framed as a Hoop Dreams-like tale filtered partially through Coodie’s own personal journey and relationship with Ye, where candid scenes play out at length and make for a far more affecting portrait than a compendium-style work would. And the material is often incredible.
There’s a determined Ye bum-rushing the offices of Roc-A-Fella to try and get a record deal, playing a demo of “All Falls Down” for employees who are uneasily waiting to be rescued from their co-workers. There is the arresting scene that was used as the trailer of jeen-yuhs, where Ye raps alongside Mos Def, spitting their verses from what would become “Two Words” from The College Dropout. Halfway through his verse (a chilling line, in retrospect: “Look God, it’s the same me”), as Coodie briefly pans away, Ye practically pulls the camera back onto him: you will look at me, you will know me, he seems to insist while literally gasping for air getting out the bars he’s seemed to wait his entire life for you to hear.
These scenes, and the many in-between snippets of Ye quietly dejected at struggling to find his breakout to leap from producer to front-and-center rapper, provide the clearest glimpse of where Ye’s trademark god-complex — his insistence that he is Shakespeare in-the-flesh, the Walt Disney, the Google, the Nike culture-shifter in one man — comes from. He spent so long desperately trying to convince people to pay attention to him, trying to get pencil-pushers he ambushed in an office to just bob their heads at what he (correctly) believed were all-time great songs stuck on a demo tape. act i: VISION is, in this way, the massive chip on Ye’s shoulder that he’s never managed to scrape off, even after reaching the highest heights of stardom.
But by far, the most moving, heart-shattering moments in the film come in the quotidian scenes between Ye and his mom, Donda. He comes to her apartment late at night in Chicago, and, later on, after Ye has finally signed a deal with Roc-A-Fella, they return to his childhood home together, surveying their origins. It’s already startling to see Ye in act i without his unpredictable, chaotic edge, but in these scenes, we truly see him as a child. This cultural giant is dwarfed by his mother, a loving, measured force whose every word he seems to hang onto.
There has always been somewhat queasy speculation around Ye’s mental health struggles in the wake of his mother’s death. But here, we truly get a sense of what she constituted in his life — a tether to the ground, and to an elemental kind of tenderness and security — and how his life was perhaps split in two with the before and after of her death. A gutting line comes in one of these scenes, as Donda admires a new chain Ye is wearing, an angel studded in gold. “And you know what?” she says, holding the piece in her hand. “You need an angel to watch over you.”
These moments, more than any others, contain the raw, emotional complexity of a messy undertaking like jeen-yuhs. You see him, knowing full well the inevitable reckoning to come and the calamity he will soon become synonymous with, and cherish this snapshot of him, just a kid, laughing and rapping with his mother, while also wondering whatever happened along the way.