We Need To Talk About Kanye
There are no geniuses. Geniuses don’t exist. Your favorite musician is not a genius. John Lennon? Prince? Pimp C? All of them were extremely good at what they did. None of them were geniuses. Stevie Wonder’s run of ’70s albums is a series of staggeringly great human achievements, but Stevie Wonder is not a genius. All of us are just fucking idiots, bumbling through life, probably causing more harm than good even when we’re doing our best. If you’re lucky, maybe you have a couple of good ideas in your limited span of time on the planet. If you’re really lucky, then maybe you were responsible for a span of work that many people enjoyed, and maybe you even got some financial reward for doing so. But even if you’re really good, you’re not a genius. When people decide that somebody’s a genius, they often let that person get away with bad things. The entire concept of “genius” is a destructive sham.
About halfway through jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy, the new three-part documentary that debuted on Netflix today, Kanye West gets into a discussion about the nature of the word “genius” and who gets to use it. The documentary covers more than two decades in the life of Kanye West, but most of it comes from candid video footage that dates back to the period before the release of The College Dropout, Kanye’s mold-breaking 2004 debut album. In the scene, which appears in the jeen-yuhs trailer, Kanye says that he’d just gotten into an argument with Rhymefest, his “Jesus Walks” co-writer. Kanye says that he felt disrespected when Rhymefest told him that he wasn’t a genius yet. Rhymefest, sitting across the room, glares daggers at Kanye and asks him an important question: “Who are you to call yourself a genius?” Kanye doesn’t answer. He just smiles at the camera.
Rhymefest is not a genius. He’s a blue-collar Chicago rapper who made some pretty good songs and who wrote a large chunk of what’s probably Kanye’s most important early hit. (“Slow Jamz” was the big chart smash on The College Dropout, but it’s worth asking how many people would’ve started to use the word “genius” in reference to Kanye West if not for “Jesus Walks.”) In that scene, Kanye West knows that Rhymefest is not a genius. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t take Rhymefest’s argument seriously. But Kanye West does not know that Kanye West is not a genius. He’s never known. He might never know.
The most striking thing about jeen-yuhs is the wild, irrational confidence that Kanye West has always had. He had that confidence long before he was famous, and that confidence is the source of all of his success, as well as a great deal of his failure. The film has a ton of flaws, but it’s a fascinating, absorbing portrait of a man who’s always been convinced of his own greatness. At one point, Kanye tells co-director Coodie about when he first arrived in New York: “Before I had my car, I used to be walking to the train practicing my Grammy speech.” Later in the film, we see Kanye give the Grammy speech he’s been practicing: “Everybody wanted to know what I’d do if I didn’t win. I guess we’ll never know.”
In 2005, his first year at the Grammys, Kanye West did not win every award for which he was nominated. He lost Album Of The Year to a Ray Charles duet collection. He lost Song Of The Year to John Mayer’s “Daughters.” He lost Best New Artist to Maroon 5. He lost a couple of rap awards to his mentor and label boss Jay-Z. In his speech for that Best Rap Album award, Kanye West was exultant. But from all available evidence, the awards that Kanye West did not win came to loom larger in his mind than those that he won. When Rhymefest told Kanye that he wasn’t a genius, Kanye felt disrespected. That must’ve been a familiar sensation. Kanye West has always felt disrespected.
Coodie & Chike, the directors of jeen-yuhs, go way back with Kanye West. When Coodie first met Kanye, Coodie was a Chicago stand-up comic and the host of a public-access rap show called Channel Zero, and Kanye was a teenage Chicago rapper trying to figure out how to get on. Even then, Kanye was able to articulate what set him apart — the things that he’d learned from his professor mother and his Christian marriage-counselor father, his own refusal to plug himself into any preexisting rap archetypes. Narrating the film, Coodie says that he had the idea to make a Hoop Dreams-style documentary about Kanye even back then but that he didn’t properly get started on the project until he heard Jay-Z debut his 2001 single “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and recognized an old beat that Kanye had played him. Soon after, Coodie moved to New York and got started on his project.
The film mostly focuses on the early years of Kanye’s career because that’s when Coodie was around. (Co-director Chike enters the picture later, when Kanye uses Coodie’s footage to make his video for debut single “Through The Wire.”) For a vast chunk of time — Late Registration through The Life Of Pablo, basically — Kanye was not in contact with Coodie & Chike, and we mostly see those turbulent years in montage form. We also hear a lot about what it’s like to see your famous friend get more famous and forget about you. At times jeen-yuhs becomes Coodie’s story, which is sort of irritating when you first watch but which makes sense as I think about it. (As a guy who writes pretty much every blog piece about himself, I can’t get mad at the author becoming the subject.)
The real juice in jeen-yuhs is in seeing such a candid portrait of Kanye West in those early years. We see Kanye watching an R. Kelly interview on TV, laughing at Kelly’s attempts to wriggle out of his accusations. We see him introducing fellow Roc-A-Fella producer Just Blaze as his “best friend/arch-enemy.” We see Scarface, in the process of hearing “Jesus Walks” and “Family Business” for the first time, admonish Kanye for leaving his retainer on a studio table. We see Kanye buying a porno mag from a Times Square newsstand. We see Rawkus Records, the New York rap indie, electing not to sign Kanye. We see Kanye West buying fried chicken and telling the cashier that he’s just signed with Roc-A-Fella. (The lady knows what that means because her daughter has apparently just shot a movie with Dame Dash.) We see Dame ceremonially putting the Roc chain around Kanye’s neck, and then we see Kanye’s frustration when the Roc won’t give his album a release date.
Throughout, Kanye West hustles. He pays for his first video out-of-pocket. He gets himself booked on HBO’s Def Comedy Jam. He plays his music for anyone who will listen and for plenty of people who won’t. I moved to New York a little more than a year after The College Dropout, and I’ve been inside a lot of the conference rooms and studios that appear in jeen-yuhs. I’ve also heard countless stories about Kanye barging into offices and standing on chairs, desperate for attention, rapping songs that will soon be revered as classics. In jeen-yuhs, we actually see that happening — Kanye trying to rap “All Falls Down” for disinterested assistants and marketing people who are just trying to go through their days. When Kanye gets a chance to rap backstage with his collaborator Yasiin Bey, he delivers his “Two Words” verse with a supernatural level of commitment. Nothing is ever casual for him. Every moment is a career opportunity.
Sometimes, jeen-yuhs struggles to make these moments seem grand and epic even when they’re just workaday situations for most of the people involved. (The swelling orchestral music, which sometimes drowns out the actual Kanye West music being recorded, is an unfortunate choice.) Coodie’s narration sometimes attempts to impose drama, too. But the existence of this footage, and the fact that we get to see it, is a wondrous thing, and it makes jeen-yuhs a crucial historical document. The best moments are the ones spent with Donda West, Kanye’s mother, who radiates calm and joy and support. She listens to all Kanye’s music and remembers the lyrics that he wrote when he was a kid. She tells Kanye that he matters when nobody else will. When Kanye tells her about when he played the “Izzo” beat for Jay, she’s absolutely enthralled. When Kanye and Donda rap “Hey Mama” together in Donda’s kitchen, the love within the room is clear, evident, and beautiful.
A certain school of thought holds that Kanye West has been spinning out ever since the sudden and unexpected death of his mother, and there’s a lot of evidence in jeen-yuhs to support that theory. But even before the loss of Donda, there’s plenty of footage of Kanye being a dickhead in jeen-yuhs. Kanye gets mad when someone calls him the best rapper/producer, complaining that this is the equivalent of calling him the best kid rapper, or the best female rapper. We see Kanye at his mom’s charity function, telling a group of little Chicago kids about his own greatness. In one weirdly sad scene, a smiling Kanye tells Coodie & Chike, the directors of his early videos, that their services will not be required for the “Jesus Walks” clip. Kanye knows that he’s coming up in the world, and now he wants Hype Williams. (Coodie & Chike actually did direct a “Jesus Walks” video, but only after the first two attempts, with bigger-name directors, did not meet Kanye’s liking.)
The footage of Kanye being an asshole is not exactly revelatory, since the image of Kanye being an asshole is now inescapable. It’s a fact of life, like the weather. We all endure it together. The jeen-yuhs movie happens to arrive after Kanye’s latest whirlwind of assholery — an online bender in which he publicly fumed about his ex-wife and his ex-wife’s new boyfriend. Kanye West is still a charismatic person, and some of that freakout was funny. (“Skete” is a funny nickname.) But this was still a galactically rich, famous, powerful person using the full power of the internet to make things more difficult for the people in his life. That will always make for a grotesque spectacle.
This latest Kanye West freakout dominated social media for much of Super Bowl Sunday, so it was a genuine shock to see Kanye making a cameo in a McDonald’s ad that ran during the game. I don’t know anything about the logistics of Super Bowl advertising, but I would bet that McDonald’s could’ve removed Kanye from that ad at the last minute. If not, then McDonald’s could’ve at least recognized the reality that Kanye might pull some dumb shit and that the company should maybe build in a mechanism in which they could remove that ad. Or maybe the company shouldn’t have gone into business with Kanye West in the first place. But that’s not how things work. Years of Kanye West freakouts have left all of us numb. They’re expected now. People laugh or roll their eyes, and people move on. Kanye West does not become any less famous, and his wealth continues to accrue. (For whatever it’s worth, Kanye West could never be responsible for as much evil as the McDonald’s corporation. So he’s got that going for him.)
It’s become popular to attempt to diagnose every Kanye West outburst, to attribute all of it to some specific mental illness. This is a dangerous idle habit. We don’t know anything about the particularities of Kanye West’s health, and it’s not our place to figure it out. We do, however, know that he’s using his pulpit for abusive purposes. Maybe Kanye West knows that, too. As I write this, that latest Kanye West episode seems to be over. All those inflammatory Instagram posts are now gone. In a post from yesterday that’s still up, Kanye admits some kind of culpability while stopping well short of apologizing: “I’ve learned that using all caps makes people feel like I’m screaming at them… I know sharing screen shots was jarring and came off as harassing Kim.” It shouldn’t take a genius to figure that out.
Kanye West’s music, the thing that got people to call him a genius in the first place, is now deeply spotty and inconsistent, but he can still do that sometimes. “Diet Coke,” the new Pusha T single that Kanye co-produced? Great! “City Of Gods,” Kanye’s new Fivio Foreign/Alicia Keys collab? Not terrible! The whole fashion industry is a mystery to me, but West’s skills and instincts in that arena can still apparently convince people to spend way too much money on sneakers. (Kanye’s success in the fashion world is all the more remarkable when you watch jeen-yuhs and behold how clownish many of his early-’00s fits were.) But Kanye’s real passion these days seems to be bugged-out, theatrical personal-brand management and destruction. For years, music has only been a small part of that.
Kanye West’s public image is extraordinarily messy, but Kanye himself likes to be in charge of that mess. In the run-up to the release of jeen-yuhs, Kanye West demanded that Netflix grant him the right to cut the film however he saw fit: “Open the edit room immediately so I can be in charge of my own image.” Netflix did not give Kanye what he wanted, and Kanye still showed up at the jeen-yuhs premiere to make yet another self-aggrandizing speech. In the end, Kanye West cannot resist attention, and we just keep giving it to him. In this equation, we’re all fucking idiots — no geniuses anywhere.
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5. Trae Tha Truth & Peezy – “Other Shit”
Trae’s voice belongs on the national registry of historic landmarks.