I first realized Kanye West was obsessed with whiteness during the Yeezus rollout. During trips to radio shows and in YouTube interviews, West went on the attack, punching up at the fashion industry because of perceived classism against his fashion ideas and designs. “I am Warhol,” he told Sway in a 2013 interview. “I am the number one most impactful artist of our generation. I am Shakespeare in the flesh.” A month later, on Jimmy Kimmel Live, he listed his “heroes”: “Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Howard Hughes, David Stern, Michelangelo…” He’d repeat those names constantly throughout the press cycle.
As one of mainstream rap’s resident sui generis artists, West had long fought for his place in music history. But his public battles were usually in the service of getting his due before he was retired, broke, or dead—a worthy-seeming cause, despite people’s cynicism and mocking towards his passions and fight for financial freedom. Whether he was interrupting Taylor Swift at the VMAs or going into the Roc-a-Fella offices and playing unreleased anthems for assistants, Kanye West was constantly fighting for his—or a peer’s—place in history. We see this in Jeen-Yuhs, a new three-part Netflix documentary series from filmmakers Coodie & Chike that follows Kanye’s life from 2002–2005 and 2018-2020. But nine years ago, around Yeezus, West’s insistence on being recognized alongside those cosmic artists began to feel obsessive. Warhol and Disney and the rest are white men who won by playing by white rules in white spaces. The same spaces that shut many Black minds and artists out.
This is not to say that it isn’t admirable that West wanted to break down barriers. But relentlessly comparing his art to the Sistine Chapel or a Howard Hughes aircraft felt antithetical to what made West successful. Early in his career, as Jeen-Yuhs shows, West knew exactly what he wanted to be: A rapper. Within that, though, he operated like hip-hop was limitless, like there could be multiple complexities within a single artist. When West began his career, he said, “I’m just as much Roc-a-Fella as I am Rawkus.” So why, in the years after he received universal acclaim among hip-hop fans for The College Dropout, Late Registration, and more, did he instead want to emulate Howard Hughes, a man whose OCD and anxieties drove him to near-insanity? I’d be content for him being as great as Q-Tip or Cam’ron.
Jeen-Yuhs begins when West is in his twenties. Though Coodie, the filmmaker and a member of his inner circle, is making a documentary about him, others hardly pay him any mind. We see Roc-a-Fella assistants and A&R’s go about their day while Kanye passionately raps throughout the office, a weary Jay-Z not sold on West’s passionate but less-than-stellar (at the time) raps, and Dame Dash not ready to anoint him as next-up on Roc-a-Fella, the premier rap label in all of New York. West was a newcomer and an afterthought, a merchant, only known as the man who produced five tracks on The Blueprint. In an amusing scene, Houston rapper Scarface tells him to take his dental retainer off the table like you’d tell your son you can only leave the dinner table when you’re excused.
People definitely appreciate his talent, though. Cameras capture Roc-a-Fella artist Peedi Crakk asking West for beats for his upcoming record. Pharrell Williams meets West for the first time and gives him brotherly advice, telling him to “still keep the same hunger. As long as keep that, that energy, you’re going to always be ill for the rest of your life.” It makes me nostalgic to hear Pharrell say that: It’s back at a time where West was into debt making Late Registration, as opposed to funding Sunday Services backed by capitalist-Christians like Joel Osteen.
It’s clear even then, though, that West has something to prove and is outspoken about saying it, putting to rest the idea that there was ever an “old Kanye.” He was always self-aggrandizing. At one point in Jeen-Yuhs, Kanye and Rhymefest are arguing about whether West is a genius. West—ever so defiant and unconcerned—wonders how Rhymefest can’t see what should be obvious to him. “Genius is something you have to earn,” Rhymefest says. West doesn’t agree.
Dr. Donda West, his late mother, is the only person who can humble him, at one point telling him the proverb that “giant looks in the mirror and sees nothing.” Whether that is an ode to humility or his faith in God, or perhaps both, the young West ducks his head in solemn agreement. Dr. West is heavily present in the documentary, functioning as his mom, his emotional support system, a business advisor, and a spiritual coach all in one. She is his date to the Grammy Awards when he wins for Late Registration. West doesn’t want to seem to want to be without her, and her loss, as we know from West’s music, is an immense one. In scenes after her death in 2007, West is not as eager to work with Coodie on the film. It could simply be that West is getting more popular and, thus, less available—but you can also sense it’s because Coodie reminds him of the time that he spent in Chicago with his mom.
For an artist whose soulful and patient beats humanized legendary Black street artists like Cam’ron and Freeway and helped introduce a “bling bling and social justice” complex to rap heads like me, West seems shockingly white-pilled, as much as he is currently red-pilled. Even his obsession with porn is rooted in a lust for the freedom of whiteness. The “Touch the Sky” music video features him talking down to a Black woman played by Nia Long, who is wondering why he has taken up with Pamela Anderson. People fall in love with who they want, and proximity to white spaces is the nature of celebrity, but West’s girlfriends have gotten lighter as he has gotten more famous. On Jimmy Kimmel Live, West admitted that the pornography he watches features Black men on white women because “it mirrors his own reality.” At least nobody can claim that Mr. West isn’t aware of himself.
This dynamic with women plays out in his music, too. Yeezus has the male gratuitousness you see in a movie like American Psycho while pitting Drill rap, Chicago acid house, and Hungarian rock music altogether—alongside The College Dropout, it’s his rawest and best record, and the one that strikes me as most primitively expressive of who West is. Despite its 40-minute runtime, listening to it is exhausting. West grotesquely barks at women throughout. He’s a bad lover on “Hold My Liquor,” an appetizing womanizer on “I’m In It,” and chides what he perceives to be social climbing on “Blood on the Leaves.” As much as Yeezus is a statement of creativity, male decadence, and hedonism, it’s also a record where West is profoundly unhappy. While “I Am a God” drips with hubris that Donald Trump himself could match, West also sounds frustrated, as if he is driving too fast and going to careen off of a cliff. On “All Mine,” from the Wyoming-born album Ye, West says, “I might have me a Naomi Campbell but still might want me a Stormy Daniels,” a line that undoubtedly alludes to both his kinship with Trump and the women he seems to be obsessed with.
Coodie has known him since West was 22 years old, producing for The Madd Rapper. Why didn’t he reckon with West’s relationship with women, and whiteness, in Jeen-Yuhs? The documentary positions Coodie as being gone from West’s life as he’s overcome by the trappings of fame, but that doesn’t excuse the film’s failure to interrogate his relationship with Trump, his sexual appetite, or narcissism. When Coodie enters back into West’s life in 2017, his lens is a reflective one. But when a scene features West agreeing with right-wing commentator Tucker Carlson’s viewpoints on West’s visit to the White House, you’d like for Coodie to question that. These things are now permanently involved in West’s legacy, as much Donda, Jay-Z, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” and negro spirituals like “Touch the Sky” are.
In the final episode of Jeen-Yuhs, one of the hardest scenes to watch features West recounting spending time in the hospital after a manic episode to his real estate partners, a group of older white men. “Have you guys ever been, like, locked up in handcuffs and put into a hospital because your brain was too big for your skull?” he asks. As he discusses having to take medication to turn his sayings from “alien to English” and compares himself to Deadpool, his claims become who he is. Kanye West, either calling out for help or being totally defiant of it, is talking to and about people who do not have his best interests in mind. The older white men are laughing, either in confusion or voyeuristic apathy, and it’s harrowing. Coodie stops filming, and you’re grateful for it. Nothing good would have come out of it continuing.
Still, I couldn’t help but be affected by this scene. West alternates between his mental illnesses being a hindrance and superpower. He’s a man attempting to decide whether to reckon with his bipolar disorder or ignore it because it makes him feel better. I’ve seen mania in my own life. Watching someone that I love, who was an artist as well, suffer under the weight of their human shortcomings and tribulations as they were attempting the unexpected is unnerving. West is not winning his battle with mental health in this way because nobody in the world can. The proximity he has to celebrities strikes me as disconcerting for his health. He’s one rant away from a TMZ post; his platforming of Marylin Manson is grotesque. His decision-making seems up and down every day, a symptom of someone in need of help with his mental health.
Still, out of apathy or self-indulgence, the machine keeps moving. His love of white innovators—the heights he wishes for—are now out of reach for him. Ye was drowsy and uneven. Kids See Ghost’splastic grunge takes away from any emotional resonance. He told The New York Times in 2013, “I rather work at a factory than sit in a Maybach”—now he hangs out with Elon Musk and wants to make flying cars. Whiteness has worked on Kanye the way a baptist grandmother says the devil is going to work on you. Maybe Kanye West should stop trying to transcend race. It’s time for some tranquility.