A little-known fact about the artist born Kanye West is that he used to wear a retainer. The rapper, producer and fashion designer, who now goes by “Ye”, is as known for his God complex as he is for his career. Whether he’s running for president, marrying and then divorcing a Kardashian, or interrupting Taylor Swift at the MTV VMAs (“He’s a jackass,” was the then president Barack Obama’s response), Ye’s unshakeable self-belief has been key in constructing his celebrity. But in recent years his orthodontically obtained megawatt smile has seemed more like a rictus grin. In their new three-part documentary for Netflix, the directors Clarence “Coodie” Simmons Jr and Chike Ozah remind viewers it wasn’t always like this. The old Kanye was a mama’s boy, braggadocio humbled by a set of adult braces.
Their fly-on-the-wall documentary is four and a half hours long, split over three “acts” titled “Vision”, “Purpose” and “Awakening”. The extended running time and hero’s journey arc hinted at by the chapter headings suggest something comprehensive that might span Ye’s 20 years in music. Instead, Coodie and Chike subvert expectations by presenting an origin story, with the first two parts focusing almost entirely on the build-up to and release of The College Dropout, Ye’s 2004 debut album. Breadth is sacrificed for depth, a decision that mostly pays off thanks to the intimate access secured by the star’s fellow Chicagoan Coodie in those formative years of Ye’s career. The comedian and TV presenter met Ye through the local hip-hop scene and, sensing something special about him, set out to document his rise.
Coodie and Chike are particularly good at drawing out the ways their subject has always had something to prove. “I ain’t the number one producer, I’m a rapper,” insists a frustrated young Ye, whose early success as a beat-maker for other artists meant he was pigeonholed as a producer. One hilarious scene sees him storming the offices of Roc-A-Fella Records, playing a demo of “All Falls Down” to a series of disinterested executives. Later, we see him at the launch party for his breakthrough single, “Through the Wire”, reflecting on how he had to self-fund its video in an attempt to grab the attention of the label and convince them to finance the rest of the album. “Who are you to call yourself a genius?” prods Ye’s collaborator Rhymefest. The moment is contrasted with a scene in which Pharrell Williams hears “Through the Wire” for the first time. Here, Ye’s genius is so obviously apparent, Pharrell has to walk out of the studio to collect himself. Ye was convinced of his own greatness, too. Coodie and Chike play a clip of him accepting the award for best rap album at the Grammys in 2005. “Everybody wanted to know what I would do if I didn’t win… I guess we’ll never know.”
Yet for all of Ye’s self-assured swagger, we still get snatches of his vulnerability. Archive footage of him playfully singing along to ‘Hey Mama’ with his mother, Donda West is a reminder of his softer side. There is the sense that he’s really listening, as she explains the distinction between arrogance and confidence. When Ye has jaw surgery following a car accident, Coodie films him asking the dentist if he can save the wires for his mum. Tender footage of mother and son underscores how formative their relationship was, though the film resists the urge to present Donda’s death in 2007 as the sole catalyst for Ye’s eventual unravelling.
Coodie narrates the film, and so it’s from his point of view that we see his and Ye’s bond begin to break down. As Ye’s star ascends, Coodie recedes from the room. Several years later, we see Ye, drunk at a party and repeatedly referring to Coodie as his co-director, Chike. It’s a nightmarish insight into what it must feel like to watch someone in your circle “make it” and leave you behind. “Open the edit room immediately so I can be in charge of my own image,” demanded Ye via an Instagram post following the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The star was not granted final cut approval, a power move from Coodie.
By the time we get to part three, Coodie and Ye are all but estranged. In order to compensate for the lost access, Coodie ends up turning the camera on himself, including snippets of his own life in intervening years – detours that don’t exactly help to fill in the gaps in Ye’s story. Instead, Coodie compresses ten years’ worth of Ye’s most controversial moments into a neat, news clip-heavy montage, and skips through his culture-defining musical career at lightning speed. In 2017 Coodie is invited to film Ye as he travels to Japan to work on Yeezy, his trainer collaboration with Adidas, but the insight and intimacy that makes the early footage sparkle is missing.
Through Coodie’s eyes, we re-encounter an old friend as a stranger. It’s a little like how it feels to be a Ye fan today. Coodie films Ye’s face in extreme close-up, sitting beside him in the car. Proximity, it turns out, is no longer a guarantee of intimacy.