‘Jeen-yuhs,’ Part 3: How the loss of his mother changed Kanye as a person—and an artist
OPINION: His voluminous output following her death made it seem as though he was trying to work through his pain rather than allowing himself time to grieve.
The third and final installment of jeen-yuhs gave us some amazing, revelatory moments and some mess. The subtext is “Coodie and Ye break up (for a period of time),” which means the film morphs from footage of Kanye into found clips of Kanye and watching him from afar. When they come back together, we get the embarrassment of Kanye calling Coodie the wrong name multiple times. Yeah, he’s drunk, but that’s no excuse—the whole film is predicated on their relationship spanning multiple decades.
And yet, when they get back together for real, Coodie is there to witness some moments of Kanye talking about his mental health and his medication as well as Kanye ranting in an unhinged way about the nature of the truth—clearly, bipolar disorder is fueling some of his more incomprehensible rants, and medication sometimes makes him communicate more effectively.
There’s also a close-up look at Kanye during his shambolic run for president, including Ye eagerly watching Tucker Carlson celebrate his insane speech about abortion. The doc does not give us any further context about why Kanye supported Trump or why he ran for president, but we do see Kanye loving the support of a right-wing media star, which shows his desire to be accepted by the right. It’s a shame that Coodie is strictly a fly on the wall in all of this; he never asks Kanye questions, but the fly-on-the-wall approach can be valuable with someone like Kanye, whose every move is telling.
I loved watching Kanye in China sitting with designers and manufacturers talking about the minutiae of his sneakers as they were being developed. Kanye is a huge figure in the world of music, but in the world of fashion, he’s even more massive—in Yeezy, he’s created one of the most iconic sneaker brands of the modern era. It’s mega-successful because of his taste, and it’s interesting to see how deeply involved he is, down to the smallest details.
But the thing that stood out most for me in this episode is the sudden death of his brilliant, loving mother. The loss of Dr. Donda West marks a new chapter in Kanye’s art. The death of a parent is usually a big deal in anyone’s life, especially a mother, but I can’t think of another major artist in modern life in any genre whose output changed so radically after the death of their mother. Kanye’s first three albums—The College Dropout, Late Registration and Graduation—are bright-sounding, funny, and clever. They come from someone who feels young and eager to please people. They’re also relatively conventional in sound and structure. I’m not saying they’re not great; they are. I’m saying that for the average hip-hop fan, they’re not sonically challenging; they fit easily within the genre we love. But the three albums after Dr. West passed away are 808s & Heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus. These albums are much darker and more sonically challenging to the average hip-hop fan—especially 808s and Yeezus.
These albums are where Kanye moves away from being a hip-hop creator to either contorting hip-hop into being whatever he wants it to be or creating a genre entirely his own that builds on hip-hop as well as electronic music and other sounds that hip-hop had never before played with. On these albums, there’s a mechanical, robotic electronic sound as if Kanye is afraid to interact with his humanity because he’s so sad. These albums feel angrier and more consciously artistic as opposed to the more commercial sound of his first three. On these albums, he’s no longer trying to please anyone; he’s just following his muse.
If you didn’t know better, you might not think the same person made the first three albums and the second three albums, and in a way, they weren’t. Kanye changed after his mother’s death. In jeen-yuhs, they talk about him working through his grief, and from the outside, his voluminous output following her death sure made it seem like he was trying to work through his pain rather than allowing himself time to pause and grieve.
You never truly get over the death of a parent—my father has been dead for several years, and I think about him so often that sometimes I see someone in the distance and think it’s him. But some people try to give the mourning process the time and space it deserves, and some people try to rush through it by keeping themselves busy. Kanye clearly took the latter approach and that has possibly made his grief stay more present.
His new album is the second one named for his mother, and in his touring—if you can call it that—he’s placed a replica of his childhood home onstage. So his mother remains central in his mind. There’s nothing wrong with that, except we know from things Kanye has said that he feels guilty for her death—she died after having elective plastic surgery. And I wonder if that guilt has led to him feeling like a villain. Because over the past five to six years, he’s consistently set himself up to be a villain. From his comments about slavery to his support for Trump to his attacks on Kim Kardashian, Pete Davidson and Billie Eilish, he seems to revel in being the troll. It’s like he wants to be the nation’s heel, the one people hate. Is this an outgrowth of him feeling guilty over his mom’s death? Is it a way of maintaining attention, or does Kanye feel like he’s a villain? As with everything Kanye, jeen-yuhs takes us inside and yet leaves us with few answers and more questions.
Touré is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.
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