What happened to Kanye?
This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Is Jeen-Yuhs, the four-and-a-half hour Netflix documentary about Kanye West, a tragedy or a vindication?
For Coodie and Chike, the two filmmakers who tracked West across two decades to make the series, it’s the latter. For them, West’s progress from his Chicago origins to his triumph as a producer and rapper is an example of God’s plan in action: West has a genius (hence the title — say it out loud), and his purpose in life is to express that genius.
It wasn’t just his songs that felt new: his character did too
And it’s true that the documentary serves as a powerful reminder that West is actually good. It’s a revelation to revisit the early days of his career and see, not just the raw talent behind songs such as “All Falls Down”, but also the unguarded delight on his face when he knows a track is good — a delight multiplied when he can tell he’s won someone else’s approval for his work.
After watching Jeen-Yuhs, I returned to the records and listened to them with an uncomplicated pleasure I hadn’t experienced about West’s music for at least five years.
College Dropout, his 2004 debut, announced him as an artist both endlessly inventive and immediately accessible. The way he played with samples and drew on the history of music meant he didn’t sound like anyone, and yet everything he did made perfect sense to listening ears.
It wasn’t just his songs that felt new: his character did too. West suffered early on for being between archetypes — too thoughtful to be a gangsta rapper and too flashy to fit in with the conscious rap movement, for a while he struggled to get signed. But that alien quality made him great too.
“All Falls Down” starts out as a story about a “single black female addicted to retail”. Then it switches to first person. “Man, I promise, I’m so self-conscious,” raps West. “That’s why you always see me with at least one of my watches.” The unkind sketch of an aspirational young woman expands out into a thesis on race and consumerism: “Drug dealer buy Jordan, crackhead buy crack/And the white man get paid off of all of that.”
It’s a song founded in self-irony: West the narrator, knows he’s part of the same system, and doesn’t pretend to superiority. But the self-consciousness, over time, became less a tool of his artistry and more an overriding obsession. His music became — stiflingly — about himself. Or rather, about “Kanye West”, the star persona.
2016’s Life of Pablo includes the track “I Love Kanye”, where he raps in the character of a Kanye fan yearning for past glory. By then, West was an undisputed global megastar and had been married to reality empress Kim Kardashian for two years: the ego that drove him through early struggles had been fed to grotesque proportions, and his mental health seemed to be splintering. The Pablo tour was cancelled after an episode of psychosis.
This is where Jeen-Yuhs begins to feel like a tragedy. Because it starts to feel like the story of a man who had endless potential, got everything he wanted — and was broken by his own success. As much as I want to buy into the narrative of the documentary, that West is now in a period of recovery following his breakdown, it’s not easy to reconcile with reality.
West is still doing remarkable things with music, but there’s a darker, more curdled tone. He still plays with his own celebrity, but now that celebrity is defined by his bitterness about breaking up with Kardashian — and the line between pretending to be “a deranged ex” and being a “deranged ex” is difficult to defend.
In the video for his most recent single, a twitchy dirge called “Eazy”, an animated version of West buries Kardashian’s new partner Pete Davidson alive.
West’s particular fragility made him a perfect subject for modern celebrity
“This is how I am in real life, not just on cable,” brags West — a plain dig at his ex-wife’s profession as a reality TV star. The track has the vibe of a Fathers 4 Justice protester, alternating between bleats about being a “noncustodial dad” and boasts about his “new bitch”.
We’re two decades into the great experiment of 21st century fame, which effectively thrusts every celebrity into what a friend pointed out is the equivalent of the court of Versailles: constant backbiting and no private life as the price of exaltation. We have enough data to conclude that this kind of fame is often singularly destructive.
There’s something dismal about getting famous for your art, then making the main text of your art the anguish caused by fame. It’s a joyless business, watching someone bleed the joy from their own life.
West’s particular fragility made him a perfect subject for modern celebrity, and it made him perfectly susceptible to its worst effects too. That’s the sorry arc that Jeen-Yuhs captures: a man whose greatest talent has turned out to be his willingness to come apart in public.
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