The first two parts to “Jeen-Yuhs,” the new Netflix documentary that follows Ye’s, formerly known as Kanye West, rise to fame, were finished more than 15 years ago. Since his emergence as a producer, West had sought to shape his public image through careful marketing of his personal brand. The film was only released two decades after its inception, emblematic of Ye’s hope of putting off the public’s exposure to his real personality. 

The documentary begins before Ye rapped on a Billboard top 200 album. By the end of the film, he is the most divisive artist in the world. The documentary was released earlier this year and included decades of never-before-seen footage shot by hip-hop journalist Coodie Simmons and filmmaker Chike Ozah, both closely connected to Ye. As a critic and fan of Ye, seeing these moments is priceless. When the documentary concludes, Ye is finally ready to put his true self on display to the public.

In “Jeen-Yuhs,” Simmons and Ozah give viewers a complete image of West pre-fame. Much of the documentary could have conceivably been storyboarded in unison with the arch of Ye’s debut album “The College Dropout,” in which he tells the story of his journey to success. However, seeing these foundational moments play out on screen, one can’t help but connect to a feeling of history taking place before our eyes. This quality is the most novel feature of the film: watching a young Ye develop almost feels like watching old home videos. 

At the beginning of “Jeen-Yuhs,” Simmons meets West as one of many different Chicago hip-hop artists but is struck by his entrepreneurial spirit and underdog mentality. Simmons followed West to New York on a whim, committed to documenting the then-producer’s work with Jay-Z and Roc-A-Fella Records. Ye was met with almost universal dismissal at Roc-A-Fella for his songwriting and rapping. However, his belief in his abilities led him to pressure the label into choosing between creating rap opportunities or losing his production to other New York labels. West all but forced his way into a feature on Jay-Z’s “The Bounce,” stumbling into Jay’s recording session and insisting on recording a now-legendary verse. Jay-Z commended Ye’s ability to promote himself, saying, “Closed mouth don’t get fed. If you hadn’t have said nothing, you wouldn’t have been on that.” 

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs away from many typical subjects typical in hip-hop, particularly the experience of city life, at the time alienated West, and he recalls, “They was looking at me crazy because I ain’t have a jersey on.” This antithetical brand from the norm in the early 2000s set West apart from the crowd, speaking from the perspective of a Black artist who dropped out of college to pursue music rather than, say, Nas’ storytelling about gun violence from personal experience. 

The relatable and endearing background was the very characteristic that alienated him from his more experienced contemporaries. Additionally, West was not known as a rapper; in the eyes of most, he was little more than Jay-Z’s producer. Breaking through these expectations was a seemingly impossible feat, but it also made West special. 

After the success of “The College Dropout,” West was catapulted to the top. A trilogy of brilliant records put the artist in the spotlight. Although his dreams came true, he had to live with the reality of fame. Following the release of his third album, Kanye’s mother, Donda West, passed away. In years to come, West took responsibility for the circumstances of her death, theorizing that the pressures of fame created a world in which she was unsatisfied. Simmons noted that in years to come following Donda West’s passing, Kanye became increasingly distant. 

Kanye West and his mother, Donda West. (Netflix, NPR)

Despite achieving goals previously not thought possible, West was burdened with the bleak reality of continuing life and work without his mother, who was his manager and best friend. She was the one constant in his life and a voice of trust and reason. In years to come, West would change.

Between a feeling of isolation and requiring, as West himself puts it, “a translator” to communicate his thoughts, Ye increasingly drifted away from the cultural zeitgeist. Between his live claim that “George Bush does not care about Black people” and defending Beyonce by interrupting Taylor Swift at the VMAs, Ye stood up for the voiceless — even when his opinion was unpopular — and he has maintained his criticisms of group thinking. Often, he rejects popular opinion at all costs, even to his own personal, financial and social detriment. 

To say that West is crazy avoids a deeper analysis of his public persona. If one disagrees with a statement, to dismiss it as madness prevents more viewers from finding merit in the statement. When we focus on Ye’s nonsensical language and unfocused philosophy, like when he claimed that he and Former President Trump are “dragon energy,” we ignore his successes, notably, pushing Trump to support criminal justice reform. However, the opposite is equally valid: to say that West is a tortured genius excuses his hurtful antics. The current situation involving Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson is an accurate example of West’s divisive persona. When Ye continuously berated Davidson, Kardashian’s recent significant other, going as far as releasing a music video directly targeting Davidson, he publicizes his life. West is clearly overstepping, as he has before, and seems to be morally wrong, but the saga exemplifies how much Ye has changed from the 20-year-old who felt that a documentary about his real-life would be too exposing.

Nonetheless, I do not look to West for relationship advice but for art. As he has countless times before, West will weave his real-life experience into music, expressing his pain the way he knows how. Rather than jumping to a social media opinion, look to “Jeen-Yuhs,” which insists on Ye’s imperfect humanity by showing the unhinged, overwhelmed celebrity’s moments of musical brilliance. 

The film is unapologetic in classifying West as an artist capable of genius. His tirades often fall short of their intent, and his music attempts to justify the bumps along the college dropout’s long path, but West is a human and an artist at his core. I urge critics to attempt to understand West’s life through his music, his medium to communicate the most alien thoughts.