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The Annotated jeen-yuhs: The Stories Behind Netflix’s Kanye Doc

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It’s a rich trove of insight into Ye’s early years.

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Ye at a Freedom Classic/Roc-a-fella event, January 17, 2004.Johnny Nunez / Getty Images

The first episode of jeen-yuhs, Netflix’s new three-part Kanye West documentary directed by Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah, is finally here. Part one, titled “act i: VISION,” follows Kanye in the early 2000s, when he was still an up-and-coming producer out of Chicago with dreams of being taken seriously as a rapper.

Long-time fans will recognize some scenes from the “Through The Wire” music video, also directed by Coodie and Chike, which provided glimpses of Kanye rapping with Mos Def, sliding down the stairs of his old house, and finally earning his Roc-A-Fella chain. Here we get the full story behind those moments, along with a whole lot more fly-on-wall footage of Kanye’s come-up.

jeen-yuhs has plenty to offer, but it does not feature the type of sit-down interviews contextualizing the story that other music documentaries often have. To provide that context, GQ will break down each episode to explore the implications.

Jermaine Dupri’s 1998 Birthday Party. After a bit of setup from Coodie about the origins of the documentary, we get our first peek at a 21-year-old Kanye tagging along to an interview with former Bad Boy rapper Ma$e and his Harlem World crew. It might seem a bit out of place but it makes perfect sense; some of Kanye’s earliest production credits were actually on Dupri’s Life in 1472 and Harlem World’s The Movement. In fact, JD’s “Turn It Out,” which featured Nas, is Kanye’s earliest major credit. To hear JD tell it, he got the beat via Kanye’s guys DeAndre “Free” Maiden and Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie.

D-Dot, a.k.a. The Madd Rapper, is not in the doc, but he did play a role in Kanye’s early rise, serving as his manager and mentor, and later took umbrage with Kanye being dubbed as his “ghost producer.” Kanye had a number of credits on Madd Rapper’s 1999 album, Tell ‘Em Why U Madd, including the Eminem assisted track “Stir Crazy”—which Kanye alludes to in the doc when he says he produced for Em. D-Dot produced many classics for Bad Boy, so he was also likely the way Kanye got connected to Harlem World and Ma$e, who—despite a short lived feud a few years back—Ye often cites as one of his favorite rappers.

The Recording of “All Falls Down.” The next major scene is four years later, when Kanye is living in Newark and running around New York connecting with the likes of Talib Kweli and Mos Def. We see him playing a slightly remade beat of Jay-Z’s “Brooklyn’s Finest” for a Black Star project that we still haven’t heard in 2022.

Later, we catch Kanye and friends including J. Ivy and Consequence, who would later appear on College Dropout, hanging out in his apartment in Newark. There’s footage of him recording clumsy vocals for “All Falls Down” and running out of breath by the last verse (“Keep that part where I run out of breath…we ain’t doing no punch-ins that’s that fake shit”). It feels historic. In all likelihood, Kanye was recording vocals for the original version of the song, which featured a Lauryn Hill sample he couldn’t clear.

We also get our first peek at a recurring sight: Kanye’s retainer. The fatal flaw of Kanye’s flow at the time was his lack of agility, although he used that to great effect on “Through The Wire.” Hearing him mumble through some of the interview footage now, maybe his retainer was to blame.

Visting the Roc-A-Fella Offices and Baseline Studios. Next up, Kanye visits the Roc-A-Fella offices in New York, where he’s willing to annoy members of the staff, including future Roc Nation President Chaka Pilgrim, to try to get his music heard. Sure, some of the songs would go on to become rap classics, but you work at Roc-A-Fella, you hear rap classics all the time! His efforts don’t seem to excite anyone for anything but more beats.

Afterwards, they head to the legendary Baseline, a now-defunct recording studio where songs like Cam’Ron’s “Oh Boy,” Freeway’s “What We Do,” and Jay-Z’s “Public Service Announcement” were all recorded. Kanye runs into his production nemesis/best friend Just Blaze. Kanye clearly has surpassed Just Blaze in many ways, but in the early 2000s, they were truly neck and neck with a similar style of sped-up soul samples.

Like Kanye, one of Just Blaze’s earliest credits was on Harlem World’s The Movement, and they both broke out after producing on The Blueprint. Although Kanye did five beats on the project and Just did four, Just typically had the upper hand at this time. Roc-A-Fella projects like Freeway’s Philadelphia Freeway, Beanie Sigel’s The Reason, and Cam’ron’s Come Home with Me all featured a track or two from Kanye, but four or five beats from Just Blaze. Whatever animosity bubbled back then seemingly never dissipated, since Kanye clowned Just Blaze on Drink Champs recently (Just seemed to take it well).

The Roc and Rawkus. Roc-A-Fella may not have taken Kanye seriously as a rapper at first, but he was being courted by other labels, including Capitol and Rawkus. We get a look at two behind the scenes players, Capitol A&R Joe “3H” Weinberger (who will pop up in later episodes) and Rawkus A&R Ali Richmond. Longtime fans will recall Kanye detailed almost signing with Capitol on College Dropout closer “Last Call,” although the documentary doesn’t show the deal falling apart at the last minute. To his credit, 3H did have an eye for talent – he went on to work at Interscope and played a part in signing Daddy Yankee, Soulja Boy and 50 Cent.

Rawkus ended up folding in 2007. However, the pitch Ali Richmond made to Kanye seemingly resonated, because comparing him to A Tribe Called Quest rather than a Roc-A-Fella artist is pretty much how Kanye describes himself on the second verse of “Through The Wire.”

Right after that convo, we see Kanye driving around describing himself as filling the gap between Rawkus and The Roc to a journalist. In today’s increasingly genre-less music world, where J. Cole works with Benny The Butcher and Tyler, The Creator works with Youngboy Never Broke Again and it’s not a big deal, it’s easy to take for granted just how wide that gap really was back then. The idea of Mos Def and Freeway on the same song was a big deal because their styles felt world’s apart, even if they really weren’t.

Disses and Slights at a Chicago Homecoming. The next major scene shows Kanye back in Chicago for a WGCI radio event, which kicks off with Kanye upset that only his first name was used on the setlist, despite multiple promises to include his surname. Now, of course, he’s a first-name only celebrity who recently legally changed his name to Ye. Earlier in the film, we see him explain the meaning of his name and point out that it was misspelled in the credits for Scarface’s “Guess Who’s Back?” All these frustrations likely contributed to the “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” bar, “Now all I need is y’all to pronounce my name/It’s Kanye, but some of my plaques, they still say ‘Kayne.’”

Kanye also introduces us to a forgotten figure in his early career, Chicago producer/rapper Dug Infinite. Dug goes from laughing with Kanye about the old days in one scene to making a diss record about him for not giving credit to Dug in an XXL interview. Kanye and company running up on Dug is one of the film’s highlights—foreshadowing the endless cycle of befriending and betraying collaborators that has characterized Kanye’s career right up to this very weekend, when he once again fell out with Kid Cudi.

Dug even alludes to how the producer No I.D. stopped talking to Kanye, a reference to the time No I.D. took Kanye to label meetings only to have Kanye embarrass him by telling former Columbia Records president Michael Mauldin he was better than Jermaine Dupri (Mauldin’s son) and moonwalking on former Sony Music Chairman Donnie Ienner’s table and claiming he was the next Michael Jackson. One thing about Kanye, he was always Kanye.

The events of this portion of the film seem to be what was on Kanye’s mind on the Get Well Soon mixtape cut “Home,” which later morphed into Graduation single “Homecoming.”

Donda’s House. The most heartwarming (and heartbreaking) scene from the first episode is when Kanye goes to his mother’s new apartment (Kanye’s parents separated when he was 3). Donda wholeheartedly supports her son’s dreams, and she even recites one of Kanye’s earliest raps (it could almost work as a lost verse for College Dropout opener “We Don’t Care.”) It’s striking how Kanye’s earliest lyrics feature motifs—watching the streets from a distance with envy and empathy, or lamenting “black on black” crime—that are present throughout his catalog, from songs like “Crack Music” to “Murder To Excellence.”

Kanye also recounts the “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” session to his mom, telling her how Jay-Z would make 18 songs in a week and flex on other artists. It sounds hyperbolic but it really is the stuff of legend—Jay recorded seven songs for The Blueprint over an inspired weekend.  As big as Jay’s late ’90/early 2000s crossover hits like “Hard Knock Life,” “Big Pimpin’” and “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)” were, “Izzo” has the distinction of being his first top 10 hit as a lead artist.

Collaborators and Co-signs. Despite its pivotal place in Kanye’s catalog, “Jesus Walks” is as much a Rhymefest song as a Kanye song, and we get to see the Chicago rapper working on it back in Newark. Rhyme, who used to perform the song during his sets, would later claim he came up with the idea for “Jesus Walks” and found the ARC Choir’s “Walk With Me” sample (both of them won a Grammy for writing the song). Both Rhymefest and Consequence are present throughout the doc, but what’s not shown is the significant role they played in writing Kanye’s raps on College Dropout (as well as his other albums).

Later, we see Kanye previewing his album for Scarface, who he apparently wanted to get on “Family Business,” though that never happened. Scarface’s connection to Kanye is important. Jay-Z’s “This Can’t Be Life” was the first song Ye did for Hov, and it featured an-all time great verse from Scarface as he reacted to the death of his friend’s son. That’s likely what led to Kanye producing Scarface’s “Guess Who’s Back” (the song he complains about getting his name spelled wrong on back at Baseline).

Though he hasn’t worked with Scarface all that much since, “Guess Who’s Back” is what led Kanye to connecting with Mike Dean. As the story goes, Kanye loved the way Dean (who worked with Scarface since the ‘90s) mixed “Guess Who’s Back?” and reached out to him to work on “Two Words.” Since then, Dean has become a staple on Kanye projects.

MTV’s “You Hear It First.” A key dramatic element in the first part of jeen-yuhs is Kanye’s efforts to get an interview on this show, which he considers key to establishing himself. “You Hear It First,” which ran from 2001 to 2007, introduced the MTV audience to new artists for the first time—everyone from Rihanna to The Game to The Arctic Monkeys showed up there. In other words, getting on “You Hear It First” in 2002 was like a No Jumper interview with a SoundCloud rapper in 2018. In today’s saturated media landscape, it just might just be a video that lives on YouTube.

Donda’s House. By August 2002, Kanye had finally signed to Roc-A-Fella, and the doc shows him heading to Chicago for a stop on Jay’s Dynasty tour. But first, Kanye and his mother visited the house he grew up in. That house ought to look familiar to fans since it’s the same one Kanye recently recreated for his DONDA listening session, which ended with the house bursting in flames with him still inside (apparently it’s still burning down for DONDA 2?)

Then it finally happens, Kanye gets on stage—passing Beyoncé backstage in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it- shot—and gets his Roc-A-Fella chain. He even utters “I’m the newest member of the Roc-A-Fella team,” a nod to a Ma$e lyric (“I’m the newest member of the Bad Boy team”). Lucky for Kanye he had the Roc behind him, soon enough he’d be calling Beanie Sigel to save him from getting robbed for it.

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