The Tragedy of Kanye West

The Netflix documentary Jeen-Yuhs traces the rise of an artist whose gift for provocation mutated from intriguing to disturbing.

Illustration of Kanye West in sunglasses
Oliver Munday / The Atlantic

Kanye West wants his divorce to entertain you. The rapper—who is going by the name Ye lately—recently mocked up a Captain America: Civil War poster with the faces of him and his wife, Kim Kardashian. He has been spamming social media with taunts about her new man, the comedian Pete Davidson, whom he’s given the nickname “Skete.” He’s planning a new stadium show for the release of his album Donda II, a follow-up to last summer’s stadium event, during which he pretended to remarry Kardashian.

Defenders of West, and tons of them still appear in the replies to any given tweet about the rapper, might say that he is surviving a painful personal chapter by doing what he does best, making content. A skeptic of celebrity culture—who isn’t one of those?—might wonder whether his recent antics are a publicity stunt for all involved. The take from Kardashian (who filed for divorce a year ago): “Kanye’s obsession with trying to control and manipulate our situation so negatively and publicly is only causing further pain for all.”

Few famous families’ agony has been publicized from within quite like this before. One of West’s recent Instagram posts said he speaks to the media in the same way basketball players speak to referees, and “WE HAVE A PUBLIC RELATIONSHIP BECAUSE WE ARE PUBLIC FIGURES.” This point of view—presenting marriage and fatherhood as sports; rallying fandoms to interfere in the lives of people he says he loves; denying his wife and kids privacy on the grounds that they are already famous—is, and there are many terms for it so I’ll just pick a simple one, messed up. But maybe I’m wrong to even express that opinion. This entire situation is none of our business.

Why, exactly, does West remain so hard to tune out? Is it because of goodwill from his music career, which peaked long ago? Is it interest in his fashion business, which still puts out sought-after sneakers? Is it the spillover from Kardashian’s own brand of fame, which turns living rooms into TV-show sets? Is it the difficulty of knowing how to deal with mental-health crises, which West has experienced in public previously? Or is it just voyeurism—the fun of watching the Kanye show?

Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy, a new, seven-hour documentary about West, contains the likely answer. We pay attention to him because he wants our attention. West is a genius at confrontation, eye-poking, yelling “Fire!” in a theater—things that might be risky to validate but seem riskier to ignore. He has used that talent, over the years, to shape what millions of people listen to, how they dress, and even how they think. And in an era when influence is a currency in itself, West’s talent for pulling focus has often been treated as inspiring. But his power has stopped seeming glamorous now that its danger is all too clear.

Filming at a party in 1998, Coodie Simmons, the host of a public-access-TV show focused on Chicago hip-hop, interviewed a sharp-looking guy in wire-frame glasses who was barely old enough to drink. This was the up-and-coming producer Kanye West, who grabbed Simmons’s mic and began shouting out his friends. That encounter, Simmons says in Jeen-Yuhs, “would be the beginning of a brotherhood that would last more than 20 years.” The resulting documentary—which premiered at Sundance and has just begun its three-week rollout on Netflix—pulls from hundreds of hours of footage that Simmons accumulated while following West around.

Yet the film is not comprehensive, even if it is illuminating and charmingly ramshackle. The first two installments immerse the viewer in the lead-up to and the aftermath of West’s brilliant 2004 debut, The College Dropout. The fact that hours of screen time elapse before we see him in the studio for his second album, Late Registration, primes the viewer to expect a documentary series of Ken Burnsian proportions—which West’s career will some day, for sure, sustain. But that day is not today. After he became famous, the rapper distanced himself from Simmons and his filming partner, Chike Ozah, until the mid-2010s, when they returned to capture the footage for Jeen-Yuhs’s third act. This fractured structure gives the movie an unsettling asymmetry. First you meet the bright-eyed early West, who hustled for his voice to be heard. Then you meet the lost-seeming West of recent years, who speaks as forcefully as ever, but with a fluctuating sense of purpose and palpable inner strain.

Kanye West and his mother Donda

The young West really did seem impossible to ignore, though at first no one took him seriously as the thing he really wanted to be: a rapper. Back then, West was a dork with a surprising talent who was always taking out his retainer and putting it on shared surfaces (much to the disgust, at one point, of the rapper Scarface). When West visits his mom, Donda, at her apartment, he seems genuinely deferential to the warm and wise woman who raised him. She admires her son’s chain while also chiding him for buying jewels before buying a house. She also gives gentle advice about embracing his star potential while remaining humble to himself.

The advice, even at that early point, was warranted. West’s habit of launching into self-celebrating monologues—packed with visions of barriers broken, dreams achieved, and doubters silenced—is noticeable from the start of the documentary. So is his skill: The best scenes simply show him breaking into his verses in front of people whose polite tolerance quickly turns into amazement. Still, it took a while for his chops to translate into success. At one point, West and his crew show up uninvited to Roc-a-Fella Records and ambush various employees in humdrum offices with West’s music. The staffers seem slightly intrigued by his lyrical punch lines, and by his gall, but no record deal immediately results.

Music was his calling card, really, because of West’s ear: his knack for balancing hypnotic flows with jolting surprises, his taste for familiar yet futuristic beats, his choice of subject matter. (Early in Jeen-Yuhs, West identifies that his edge in hip-hop is that he isn’t deadly and battle-hardened, and that his parents instilled a political consciousness in him.) Like all great pop artists, West understood himself in relation to his audience, allowing him to deduce what would keep them rapt. Profitable controversy was not yet part of the equation. When a onetime mentor dissed West on Chicago radio in the early 2000s, West seemed hurt and confused—and, in a twist for today’s viewers, moved quickly to de-escalate the conflict.

“I guess things change when you get famous,” Simmons says in the third and final Jeen-Yuhs chapter, explaining why West started cutting the documentarians out of his circle over time. According to Simmons, “Kanye said he wasn’t ready for the world to see the real him,” because the rapper had begun consciously “acting” in public. So Jeen-Yuhs ends up using montage to depict many pivotal moments: the 2005 George W. Bush comment; the 2009 Taylor Swift incident; the man-made mountain of his 2013–14 Yeezus tour. When images of him and Kardashian walking a red carpet flit by as if in a side-view mirror, some pundit can be heard calling their relationship a “recipe for disaster.”

While we aren’t let in on West’s thought process throughout the long and productive second act of his career, we do see how many of his extramusical provocations drew upon the same qualities he had used to get famous in the first place: enthusiasm for confrontation; a faith in his own extemporaneous verbal abilities; the tendency to justify his own glorification as part of a larger social mission; and, most crucially, a knack for pushing beyond the lines of what society expects. Hearing him yell at the radio host Sway Calloway or declare himself a god to Zane Lowe, fans may feel a strange nostalgia for West’s old style of scandal, which at least always publicized great music.

Kanye West in front of a microphone

Simmons returned to the rapper’s fold a few weeks after West’s involuntary psychiatric hospitalization in 2016, which Simmons says shocked him: “When I would see Kanye go off in the past, I just thought it was a part of the show. I had no idea he was even struggling with his mental health.” Questions of intentionality and responsibility then came to surround West as he rapped about mania and murder, befriended Donald Trump, and made a swing toward evangelical Christianity. Perhaps the most eerie scene of the documentary takes place in 2020, as West sits with a group of real-estate investors in the Dominican Republic. He begins ranting, angrily and seemingly unprovoked, about genius and persecution. Simmons notes the “energy” shifting and turns off the camera.

West has, as recently as last week, made clear that he doesn’t want his actions to be justified or discounted because of speculation about his mental health. Late in Jeen-Yuhs, he pulls out his phone to watch Tucker Carlson praise the rapper’s 2020 rally in South Carolina, during which then-presidential-candidate West sobbed while speaking about abortion. Behind the camera, Simmons discourages West from watching Carlson—“he’s negative!”—but West remains rapt. Carlson acknowledges reports that West may be experiencing a bipolar episode and says, “It doesn’t mean what he said is wrong.” In response, West exclaims, “Boom!”

That South Carolina rally is typical of latter-day West in that, despite concerns about how he’s doing and the value of what he’s saying, he is operating in a way that is very hard to ignore—because these days he is flouting ethics, not just taste. West’s run for president came with potentially big implications: He was assisted by Trump surrogates who likely wanted him to shave votes away from Democrats. According to reports, his rally, which included the revelation that he had considered aborting his first child, upset Kardashian because she had not consented to revealing such information to the public. His violation of her privacy would seem to deserve condemnation. But that means publicizing it and him, fueling the sort of cycle that the media, entertainment institutions, and the public have been unable to resist.

West can no longer credibly argue that his ends justify his means. He wants to, as he puts it late in Jeen-Yuhs, “change sanitation, change meditation, change the way we think, the way we connect with Earth, the way we connect with God”—messianic goals that, at least, fit with his turn toward religion and politics. But his social-media campaign over the past few weeks to get Kardashian to take him back offers a reminder of why his supposed good intentions have never gotten as much notice as his methods of pursuing them. Sending a truck of roses to his ex’s house, encouraging his followers to yell at her boyfriend, posting her private text messages—this behavior, as many commentators have argued, resembles dangerous, stalker tactics.

On Wednesday, West relented somewhat by writing that he understood his posts had been “jarring and came off as harassing Kim.” He announced that he would no longer be writing in all caps, because it makes people think he’s shouting, and he added that “to be a good leader is to be a good listener.” These were vows for a recalibration of his communication style, nothing deeper: His form of listening has really always been about figuring out how to make others listen to him. He will challenge cultural norms again and again—but may well only make the point that some boundaries exist for good reason.