Kanye the Careerist | The Nation

 Kanye the Careerist | The Nation

Coodie Simmons has said that his four-and-a-half-hour, three-part documentary about the life and times of Kanye West was supposed to be a kind of hip-hop version of Hoop Dreams, the acclaimed 1994 documentary that chronicled the various social and economic obstacles facing two Black Chicago high schoolers as they strove to make it to the NBA. The first hour and a half of jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy, titled “Act I: Vision,” primes us for such a journey. At its opening, we meet a baby-faced West at the 1998 birthday party of Atlanta record producer Jermaine Dupri, seemingly happy just to be a plus-one. Simmons had heard about Kanye while covering Chicago hip-hop for his public-access cable show Channel Zero. The young producer’s name had become ubiquitous on the scene, and in West’s bid to surpass local renown and infiltrate the still relatively coastal mainstream rap world, Simmons saw a canny parallel to a hopeful high school trying to make it to the league.

However, not long after Simmons makes up his mind to document the fledgling star’s journey, Kanye skips town and moves to New York. By the time the pair link up again a few years later, West is living in a spacious New Jersey apartment and coming off a career-changing milestone. Months earlier he’d produced four of the 13 songs on Jay-Z’s monumentally successful The Blueprint, including its hit lead single “Izzo.” The documentary’s first act concludes with West inking the deal that would earn him a coveted spot on the roster of Jay-Z and Dame Dash’s Roc-A-Fella Records.

Despite this auspicious prelude, the vision of West that Simmons and his co-director Chike Ozah leave us with is not nearly so winning. The entire series, and the nearly 21 hours of footage the pair edited, doesn’t congeal into a neat allegory about Kanye’s perseverance or a sparkling tribute to his uncommon talent. West and his career, as many of us well know, is too sprawling, too erratic, too inscrutable to be reduced to anything so tidy. What we are left with instead is perhaps an unprecedented case study of what can occur when an immensely gifted and singularly ambitious person is exposed to the most potent toxins of 21st-century celebrity for the better part of two decades. What effect can it have on his personal relationships? Where is his sense of self?

The strongest intimations of these consequences come in “Act II: Purpose.” The triumph of a record deal does not prove to be the catharsis that West thought it would be. Roc-A-Fella balks at opening up marketing and recording budgets for him, and so West is forced to borrow studio time to record what would become The College Dropout and pay out-of-pocket to produce his first music video. That this was demoralizing is obvious, so much so that you may find yourself in the somewhat strange position of almost pitying a multi-platinum hip-hop producer explaining at length, as a young West does to an unsuspecting journalist, how he just needs someone to loan him $ 200,000.

The lesson here is that, to the powers that be, you’re worth nothing until you’re worth something. This is a maxim that West, even at this early juncture, seems to have fully internalized. And it’s the ramifications of his receiving this early lesson — how he learned to value himself, his work, and other people — that Simmons seems unable (or unwilling) to grasp, despite the footage spelling it out.

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