Creative Sensemaker: What to read, watch and listen to this weekend
A rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
Friday 11 February 2022 By James Wilson
It’s 2020 and the rapper, producer, businessman and fashion designer, Kanye West, is in the Dominican Republic. Putting down his microphone, he casually mentions that he is running to be the President of the United States.
It’s a fitting opening for jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy, capturing its protagonist’s erraticism, ambition, and utter self-belief. The three-part documentary, streaming on Netflix from 16 February, follows West’s rise from dorky Chicago-based record producer to one of the most influential artists in the world (and self-described creative genius).
The first episode finds West in Chicago, working mainly as a producer of other artists’ records. By 2000, he was in New York working with some of the biggest artists around. His talent was enough to convince Coodie, the documentary’s co-director, to spend the next 20 years filming the rapper.
Since then, Kanye has had 10 studio albums, 22 Grammys, married (and then split from) Kim Kardashian, launched his own line of trainers, established his own gospel choir and church service, endorsed Donald Trump, run for president himself, and had several very public meltdowns. Back then, though, he was struggling to even get a record deal.
‘Most people just saw Kanye as a young producer who could hook them up with beats,’ says Coodie. While this shouldn’t be a problem for a youngster aspiring to make it in the music industry, it was a problem for West. He was successful early (at just 24 he produced five tracks on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint album), but was always the one behind the mixing desk, never in front of the mic. Clad in knitwear and often seen wearing a dental retainer, the early West is earnest and endearing, struggling to be taken seriously as the performer he so desperately wants to be. In one scene, he heads to Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, playing his music and rapping over it in the offices of various staff members in an attempt to persuade the label to sign him. He’s largely ignored.
But despite the setbacks, West’s fierce ambition and belief in himself is evident from the start. When he talks of his debut album, then still in the works, he says how he’s going to do it ‘the way I f**king wanna do it… There shouldn’t be no way for me to lose’. In another scene, still without a record deal, he tells a journalist how he’s already practised his Grammys speech.
But this self-belief, while endearing in the context of the first episode, has since morphed into a trait that West is now known for the world over – an arrogance of almost unbelievable proportions: ‘I am unquestionably, undoubtedly, the greatest human artist of all time,’ he told Zane Lowe in 2019. His Messiah complex is on full display – his 2013 track ‘I Am A God’ includes the line ‘I know [Jesus is] the most high, but I am a close high’.
He’s been accused of blasphemy, but West’s Christianity is integral to him. He named his most recent album in 2019 Jesus Is King, and that same year established Sunday Service – a choir that gathers for celebrity-laden worship sessions and whose services have centred around Kanye and his relationship with God, rather than around God himself. (For more on this, do read Tortoise journalist Xavier Greenwood’s excellent piece from 2019.)
Jeen-yuhs captures West’s creativity, vulnerability, raw authenticity, charisma and self-belief – it all adds up to make him compulsively watchable. ‘There was no doubt in my mind that he would be a star,’ says Coodie at the start of Act I. For all his flaws, you can see why.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
Chloe (BBC iPlayer)
Becky from Bristol is living with her mum and working in a job she hates as an office temp. But when Chloe, an influencer Becky follows dies, she seizes the opportunity to infiltrate her grieving circle of friends. Armed with some designer clothes and an upper middle-class accent, Becky is utterly convincing as ‘Sasha’, pretending that she’s just returned from a job marketing for galleries in Japan. But what’s really motivating Becky? Was Chloe really just an online presence for her? Luckily, you don’t have to wait – all episodes of this pacey Bristol-based thriller are available to binge on BBC iPlayer.
Notes On An Execution by Danya Kukafka
Ansel Packer is due to be executed in just 12 hours. On death row for the murder of several women, his inevitable death ticks towards him as the novel flicks between his final hours and previous chapters of his life. The novel pulls apart the idea that we should be fascinated by the romantic complexities of serial killers that films, books and podcasts have so frequently pushed. Instead, Notes On An Execution focuses on various women who, although not his direct victims, have had their lives affected by him in some way. A far more interesting examination of a serial killer’s impact than pop culture usually manages.
Thanks to Tortoise reporter Phoebe Davis for this recommendation:
The Power Of The Dog soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood
Keen ears will notice a distinctively dissonant musical undercurrent to some of this year’s Oscar nominations. Jonny Greenwood, better known as lead guitarist for Radiohead, is up for scoring Best Picture frontrunner, The Power Of The Dog. In case that wasn’t enough, he also scored Spencer, starring Best Actress nominee, Kristen Stewart, and has a track on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza. His combinations of soft piano, soaring violin, and looping transient melodies are works of art in their own right. Speaking to Terry Gross at NPR this week, Greenwood was asked about how he got such a distinctive piano sound on his Phantom Thread (2017) tracks. He replied that it came from laying down felt across the hammers, but also sheepishly admitted it was in part down to his laziness in booking a piano tuner.
Have a lovely weekend, and stay safe.
All the best,