Kanye West demanded that the world pay tuition to listen to ‘The College Dropout’ —
Kanye West’s debut album, The College Dropout, is his magnum opus. Even if you disagree, the second episode of Netflix’s jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy is a masterful defense of why it is his most necessary.
Watching this deep look into the creation of West, the man and eventual superstar, has been trippy, at best, and traumatic at worst, especially witnessing his current iteration. That reckoning figures to be the crux of the third and final installment next week. The beauty of episode two is that it focuses on the years 2002 to early 2005.
“I feel like we about to go 10 million with what I’m ’bout to say right now,” West said at an October 2002 news conference Roc-A-Fella Records was holding for the release of the film Paid in Full. Roc-A-Fella produced the soundtrack album along with Def Jam Recordings.
Let’s place in context what rap — in particular Roc-A-Fella Records — looked like at that moment. Known as “The Roc,” the label founded by Jay-Z, Damon Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke was the gold standard of impactful crews. Its sound, fashion and texture were influential well beyond its base in the Northeast. It was also largely street-oriented, with acts such as Peedi Crakk, Beanie Sigel and, of course, Jay-Z, who was already a superstar. This was the barrier West, a producer from Chicago, faced in his earliest days at Roc-A-Fella. No one was mistaking West for the next Beanie Sigel. Most looked at him and figured he wouldn’t bust a grape in a fruit fight. He did, however, have something important to say.
jeen-yuhs, directed by Chike Ozah and masterfully narrated by Clarence “Coodie” Simmons, shows us West’s frustrations in trying to be heard. He loved the opportunities production provided him. But that was merely an entry point. What mattered more was the respect that came with being a rapper. The term “producer-rapper,” in West’s eyes, was a form of disrespect. He wanted the reverence that Jay-Z, Eminem or Outkast received. So, much like in the first episode, the rib-sticking moments show West’s tireless efforts to prove his worth to anyone who could take his career to the next level.
Though portions of it have lived on the internet for years, the scene of Jay-Z helping West record his verse for “The Bounce” on 2002’s Blueprint 2 album is a seminal opportunity that cannot be understated. From there, West, the rap star, seemed all but inevitable. Yet, if the episode teaches us anything, it’s just how much West experienced in the buildup to his debut album. The car crash that nearly took his life has always been seen as a defining moment and one of the very first things we learned about him 20 years ago. How could he hope to be a successful artist with his most important asset, his mouth, wired shut? Where West’s personality comes off as manipulative and dangerous these days, that obsession with showing how his music could change the world is more endearing in these early days of his career.
The truth is, West could’ve quit on multiple occasions during this time. Yet, he turned his obstacles into art. Footage of his visits to the dentist let the world see what he went through, what he felt — all the way down to the wires wrapping around his teeth and gums.
The appeal of The College Dropout was how transparent it prided itself on being. We all knew West, as he said on “All Falls Down,” was the first to admit being self-conscious. We get to see him fighting through his insecurities during scenes of West in the studio with an assortment of A-list talent of the day. There’s Ludacris dubbing West the next game-changer. The studio session with Jamie Foxx that resulted in “Slow Jamz” is nothing short of incredible.
He still wasn’t the star he was in his mind. The most hilarious clip comes when West introduces himself to a kid and names all the songs he produced. “Cool,” the kid said, then rode off on his scooter.
Without question — seriously, without any question — episode two’s most powerful moment is West’s studio session with Pharrell. He’s still, desperately at this point, trying to get people to buy what he’s selling. He’s sneaking into studio sessions of other artists to record music. There’s a sense of urgency that perches itself on West’s shoulder the entire episode that doubles as the main character.
“I made so many decisions sitting up in that hospital for seven days to just decipher between the bulls— in my life and the direction I needed to go in,” West told Pharrell and Talib Kweli before playing “Through The Wire.” By 2003, Pharrell was already an established deity in Black music. He had no reason to tell West what he wanted to hear instead of what he needed to hear. Which is why seeing him walk out of the studio in amazement brings goose bumps. Pharrell saw what was about to happen.
“N—a, that s— is phenomenal. You one of my favorite artists, man. And I only heard, like, two records,” he told West before giving a prophetic warning: “You gon’ make it, and when you make it, keep that perspective. Still keep that hunger.”
Much like in episode one, Donda West, Kanye’s mother, is a North Star. Her love for him is equal parts nurturing and heartbreaking. While it doesn’t excuse any of his most grimace-inducing actions over the years, it is a reminder of just how much of who he was was lost when she died in 2007.
As the episode nears its conclusion, we see the belief and grind he put in beginning to pay off. He sneaks into MTV studios to finish the edits on the “Through The Wire” video. Going on his own marketing campaign by appearing on Def Poetry Jam and releasing the lauded I’m Good mixtape proved what Kanye, Donda, best friend Coodie and the crew knew all along. Rap has no problem producing stars (and devouring them, too). But West was a superstar. One who would dictate the sound and pace of popular music moving forward.
Footage from a New Year’s party in 2004 is a glimpse back into what was on the immediate horizon. The College Dropout would drop in less than two months. Donda West praises the new year as the year that would change their lives. By now, West’s believers included names such as Jay-Z and Dave Chappelle. He was about to make backpacks and Polo Ralph Lauren a fashion statement. And it’s all because of the album. More so, the fight to release the album.
“I feel like this album,” West reflected, “was kinda like my angel.”
Soon the story would change. On one hand, it’s unfair to expect him to stay the West who drew us in. But there were hints if you were paying attention. There’s a chin-rubbing scene in which West casts a biracial man as Jesus in the “Jesus Walks” video because he didn’t want to argue whether Jesus was white or Black. Little did West, or any of us, realize that determining (or obscuring) the race of the son of God wouldn’t come within a 100-mile radius of the controversies to follow.
After West’s 2005 Grammy acceptance speech for winning best rap album for The College Dropout, Simmons, who had been collecting footage for years, believed he had everything he needed for a documentary. If the first two episodes reveal anything, he did. jeen-yuhs deserves the praise it has already received.
It’s only half of the story, though. Now, we prepare to embark on the part of the story where the complexities of the man and his world rival the music.