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Yeezus Tour Verizon Centre Kayne West| Photo: Peter Hutchins – Wikimedia Commons | cropped from original | CC BY-SA 2.0 | license linked at bottom of article

Yeezus Tour Verizon Centre Kayne West| Photo: Peter Hutchins – Wikimedia Commons | cropped from original | CC BY-SA 2.0 | license linked at bottom of article

Coodie and Chike’s Netflix trilogy gives viewers an insight into the rise and troubles of creative powerhouse and hip-hop icon Kanye West, writes Mayer Wakefield

“A giant looks in the mirror and sees nothing – you can be in the air and stay on the ground at the same time."

In one of the most touching scenes from Coodie & Chike’s Netflix documentary trilogy on American hip-hop superstar Kanye West he is sat with his mother Donda at her kitchen table in 2002, and she recites this short maxim to her doting son. The air crackles with love and appreciation.  

At the time, West was an up-and-coming (whisper it) producer who was making his way up the hip-hop food chain having produced Jay-Z’s hit single Izzo (H.O.V.A.) the previous year. The Chicagoan was resentful at the fact that he was being pigeonholed by his peers as just a beatmaker, fuelling his almost inexhaustible ambition to be taken seriously as a rapper in his own right.  

He had a fight on his hands and the only person who believed in him more than himself was his mother. Oh, and comedian turned documentary filmmaker Coodie, who is much more than just a passenger in this four-and-a-half-hour rollercoaster of a series made up of his footage. 

Having documented the burgeoning hip-hop scene in Chicago from the mid-90’s with his DIY Channel Zero, Coodie was better placed than anyone to recognise the talents of Kanye and was so enamoured by his drive to succeed that he committed to making a documentary about him at a time when few others wanted to give him the time of day. It was an inspired decision which changed the course of both men’s lives.  

From tragedy to triumph

Act I is justly titled ‘Vision’. In it we witness Kanye doing all he can to get his foot in the door by, quite literally, storming the towers of hip-hop power having recently moved to hip-hop’s traditional home – New York. At one point he goes from office to office in Roc-A-Fella Records HQ, the label which would eventually break him, rapping at the top of his voice while staff tap away on their now giant looking desktops. They, like most at the time, seem to see him almost as a comedic, parody figure – something which has remained true throughout his career and has played an important part in his popularity. 

What they underestimated was his desire to succeed, his indisputable talent and his ability to get people talking. The first two of which stem directly from his mother. Coodie’s considered narration adds weight throughout the series and his observations of Donda’s ‘special way of lifting the spirit’ is a perfect example. ‘Mama West’ radiates charisma in every slide she appears, and you can see that she transmitted it to everyone around her – not just her son. After one appearance on the Def Jam Poetry series the English Professor praises Kanye’s ability to lace his braggadocious lyrics with political insight – positive reinforcement and then some. 

And boy does it pay off. But not without bumps in the road, most notably a much-documented car crash that could have killed him and left him with a severely fractured jaw just weeks after having made his first rap appearance on a major track – Jay-Z’s The Bounce. But in typical fashion for the Kanye of this period he ‘turns tragedy to triumph’ and creates the Chaka Khan sampling track Through The Wire which would eventually propel his career into a different stratosphere, much to the surprise of his label. 

Act II documents this trajectory joyfully – it is the stuff of dreams. Not just for Kanye at the time but for hip-hop fans now who, like me, always considered Kanye’s tales of battling for his status and life way overblown. Video material of him waiting in corridors and car parks to track down artists like Ludacris and Pharrell Williams are just gold dust. Pharrell walking out of the studio in disbelief at what he’s just heard when West plays him Through The Wire takes us back to how we all felt the first time we heard that track – what is this? Who is this? It had, and still has the unique flavour that made the ‘old Kanye’ a truly special artist.  

The same can be said of the debut album, The College Dropout, he was creating during this period. An inspired work as gritty as it was funny, as political as it was boastful. Watching Coodie’s fly-on-the-wall footage of Kanye in the studio with Jamie Foxx as he ad-libs his way through the intro and chorus of Slow Jamz is a truly stunning piece of musical history, not just documentary footage. Much in the same vein as the recent Get Back series is for fans of The Beatles.  

Meglomania

Sadly, this studio footage marks the high point of the trilogy and possibly West’s career. After scooping up four Grammys for the album in 2005 the giant that Donda referred to was no longer attempting to look in the mirror and West’s fragile, child-like character that marked his early career was quickly overtaken by the egomaniac that accompanied it. Luckily for fans of his music he did deliver another classic with his sophomore album, Late Registration, before the mirror had been well and truly smashed. 

There is little evidence of that album here as this period also marked what Coodie thought was the last of their working relationship. Worse still, the tragic passing of Donda West in 2007 due to complications from a cosmetic surgery procedure left an unfillable void in both of their lives. Without his mother, manager and best friend Kanye began a rapid slide into a world of anger, reactionism and megalomania.  

It's the world we’re invited into when Coodie reaches out to West and begins filming him again following a series of psychotic episodes on tour in 2016 which saw him admitted to hospital. Even their initial meeting is bizarre, lit up by paparazzi flashes as they enter a glitzy LA restaurant. But that’s just the beginning as we witness a spiralling individual who has clearly lost touch with reality fight his demons. It makes Act III, infuriatingly christened ‘Awakening’, a difficult and painful watch.  

There are moments in it when you think ‘I probably shouldn’t be seeing this’ and you have to question whether Coodie is acting in Kanye’s best interests as the friend he claims to be. Extended clips of interviews and interactions with the likes of Justin Bieber, real estate oligarchs and his father document the life of a man no one is willing to say no to, much to his detriment.  

Whatever you think of Kanye and his antics over the years it’s difficult not to squirm watching someone in the throes of mental health troubles and addiction struggles lurch from new age Christianity to hyper capitalistic fantasies surrounded by ‘yes’ men. Remarkably he can continually create despite all of his battles and for better or worse (definitely worse in my view) he is arguably as popular as ever.  

Fundamentally, Kanye West is a creative powerhouse who has changed the world but not necessarily for the better. But jeen-yuhs is about far more than just one man. It’s about the quest for meaning in 21st century and all that that entails.

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