Kanye the Careerist

Kanye the Careerist

A three-part Netflix documentary on the rapper’s rise unintentionally shows the depths of West’s cynicism. 


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 high school hopeful 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 codirector 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? On 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 evident, 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.

Our narrator takes pains to suggest that these early career slights only served as a fuel for West’s righteous creative passion. And while this may be true, the other apparent repercussion is that these early trials served to fortify in him a more brazen and cynical careerism. Stuck in Roc-A-Fella purgatory, West embarks on a word-of-mouth publicity campaign, playing his first single, “Through the Wire,” for anyone who will listen. One of the more memorable of these guerrilla listening sessions happens while West is borrowing studio time in LA for a session with Ludacris. When West finds out Pharrell is recording in a neighboring studio, he pays him a visit. Never one to withhold praise, Pharrell is predictably floored with the song and liberally doles out compliments: “You’re one of my favorite artists,” he tells West. Naturally, West is excited about this moment, because it’s validation from an accomplished peer—but more importantly, as he later explains to Big V of Nappy Roots, “It looks ill on camera!”

Act II of the series concludes with West’s triumph at the 2005 Grammys, where The College Dropout is nominated for Album of the Year and takes home the award for Best Rap Album. Simmons quickly loses contact with West after this, but in “Act III: Awakening,” he revives his show, Channel Zero, for the artist’s 2006 Grammy after-party. After chatting with a few guests, Simmons is finally able to track down the man of the hour, who, earlier that night, took home six awards for his second album, The Late Registration. The interview that follows is a rich medley of awkwardness, despair, and thinly veiled cruelty. In it, an apparently inebriated West, who is surrounded by handlers, misnames his old friend and collaborator not once but three times. In this moment, it’s clear to Simmons and to us, the viewers, that West is keen on signaling that he has made a departure: He is telling Simmons smugly, if not directly, that he has ascended from the humble and familiar realm of the striving to the exclusive and rarefied tier of the arrived.

The next time Simmons would see West was two years later, backstage at 2008’s Glow in the Dark tour, where he is largely ignored rather than belittled. That a globally scrutinized pop star and tabloid fixture would no longer want a cameraman documenting his every waking moment feels understandable. However, an aspect of West’s unceremonious dismissal of Simmons that the film conspicuously avoids is that Simmons was simply no longer useful to him.

This, in fact, is one of the documentary’s chief insights. The career-spanning footage offers a rare, up-close look at the informal, conditional, and commodified relationships that are the lifeblood of the entertainment industry. Take the moment after the success of the video for “Through the Wire”: Finally convinced, Dame Dash and Roc-A-Fella decide to grant West’s financial wishes and, in effect, green-light his career path. In one of the documentary’s most candid passages, the camera captures how—drunk with this newly acquired cachet—West signals the end of a chapter in his working relationship with Simmons. “Now, you know, I’ma let ya’ll do mad videos,” he tells Simmons behind the camera, almost gloating. “But ‘Jesus Walks’? I gotta get Hype [Williams], man.” They had a good run, but West is on to bigger and better things. “But you know I fuck with ya’ll, though!” he reassures Simmons glibly.

A turn like this feels less surprising when one considers the reason for the documentary’s existence at all: Simmons met a pre-fame West, saw that his megastardom was imminent, and decided to try and get in on the ground floor. And for the still-nascent West, the constant presence of a cameraman clearly supplied him with a bolstered sense of importance, not to mention ample opportunities to tell people that “they’re doing a documentary on me.”

When Simmons is finally invited back into West’s life, a decade later, it is in the service of a rehabilitation campaign that West has undertaken in the wake of his controversial affiliation with former president Donald Trump. At this point in the series, it becomes clear that while there may be some genuine affection and trust between the two men, they seem to mean more to each other as avatars of ideas than as actual people. For West, Simmons is a reminder of his hardscrabble beginnings, whose presence he can wield as proof of his still being grounded on Earth with the rest of us. “I have a gentleman, Coodie, who I have been working with basically my whole life,” he exaggerates to someone on the phone at one point.

For Simmons, West represents the hometown hero who defied the odds and made it to the top without ever having to change. It’s clear, however, that West has changed, and changed quite a bit. We see it in the colossal weariness with which he fields a concerned call from his father late in Act III. Days earlier, he had held a now-infamous rally in Charleston, S.C., for his own ill-fated and half-hearted bid for the presidency in July 2020. Among his many proclamations about the immorality of abortion and his addiction to painkillers, West had claimed that Harriet Tubman didn’t help free the slaves but “just had the slaves go work for other white people.” This was not the picture of a complicated genius but rather footage of a very tired man whose incessant courting of mass notoriety had only left him the worse for wear.

As the final scenes of the documentary play out and inch closer to the present day, we see Simmons and Ozah struggle to make it all cohere. At various points, as West slips into yet another impassioned, incoherent diatribe—in the Dominican Republic, in front of a group of uncomfortable real estate investors; on a couch with Justin Bieber at his Wyoming ranch—Simmons does something he had previously never done: He stops filming. “We don’t know what it feels like to be the single person that’s feeding up 3,000 or 20,000 people consistently over [the] years and how people change their reaction to you because you’re a star,” he said in the press notes for the documentary. “We have no idea what that brings out in you.” That statement, like much of the film, was Simmons trying to cut his friend some slack.

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