By 2014, Kanye had already become an almost unanimously known name in the hip hop world for his stellar six-solo-album run that included his classic debut “The College Dropout” and chart-topping, Pitchfork 10 ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’. His 2014 blockbuster, TV-record breaking wedding to Kim Kardashian introduced him to an entirely new audience; making him an instant household name and catapulting him to the front page of every tabloid paper across the world. The combination of his often-intimate music and the never ending cameras that follow the Kardashians around, allowed fans and the public at large an uncomfortably intimate glance into his life.
Since his marriage to Kardashian, the public has been granted access to all the good, bad – and especially – the ugly of Kanye’s life. Every narcissistic outburst, every mental health crisis and every outrage inducing statement (saying slavery was a choice and that Bill Cosby was innocent, for instance) has gained viral coverage. Many a modern artist play at the edges of controversy, but few have become so utterly divisive – so strongly loved and hated – as Kanye. Few artists with as strong a discography as West’s end up with their music being so thoroughly overshadowed by their scandals. The only remotely comparable modern example I can think of – of someone as famous as Kanye, with as legendary a discography, whose music has been overshadowed by controversy – is Hole front-woman Courtney Love.
Even with Love, however, her music itself has rarely been the source of controversy (instead, it’s *everything* else), but with Kanye’s tenth studio album, all of his personal infamy seeps into the music – making the two inseparable from each other. DaBaby – who made homophobic comments just a few weeks ago – makes an appearance on ‘Donda’, as does Marilyn Manson – who was credibly accused of sexual assault just a few months earlier – on the otherwise impeccable ‘Jail’ (more on that song later). Perhaps the grossest thing here though is abuser Chris Brown’s presence on ‘New Again’. Here, Kanye seems to forgive Brown’s mistakes (“last night don’t count”) despite it not being his place to forgive the woman-beater and Brown meekly cries “make me new again”; misplacedly implying a sense of remorse from the rapper who twelve years after beating Rihanna, was accused just this Summer of hitting another woman. To enjoy Kanye’s music as of late has required to separate the artist from the art, but here this is harder than ever to do; to listen to much of Donda is to feel dirty afterwards, regardless of the strength or weakness of the music itself.
If you can however put the multiple controversies that surround ‘Donda’ aside (no easy task) what one is left with is a thoroughly mixed bag. West’s tenth studio album begins with the ‘Donda Chart’; a one word chant of ‘Donda’ repeated over and over again by Syleena Johnson. It’s an intriguing opener that hints at an album far more conceptually fully realised that what the bloated ‘Donda’ ultimately turns out to be.
‘Donda’ ultimately comes in at an eye watering 108 minutes – prolonged unnecessarily by four remixes tacked onto the end of the album that add little to the overall listening experience. Few artists would be able to maintain excellence for this length of time and Kanye is no different; within ‘Donda’ is a full album’s worth of good to great songs but each one is surrounded by songs that are either mediocre or sound far from finished. Clearly this album isn’t particularly rushed – Kanye has been unafraid to delay it’s release again and again – but so many songs here sound half-baked and under-nourished; lacking crispness and the usual grand, drum-heavy arrangements of past releases. Sometimes this makes for a listening experience that is simply a little underwhelming and other times it makes for one that is actively unpleasant; see the Pop Smoke feature ‘Tell The Vision’; which feels like nothing short on a insult to the legacy of the late rapper whose musical talents have been exploited time and time again following his untimely death.
While ‘Donda’ was surely conceived as a holistic and cohesive listening experience, this listener is ultimately best served not by ploughing through this blockbuster release in it’s entirety, but by picking and choosing it’s highlights; which are surprisingly plentiful. ‘Off The Grid’ – excusing some cringe-inducing lines about God being a “bestie” – is one such highlight; with an earworm chorus of “we off the grid, grid grid”, as is ‘Believe What I Say’; a classic sounding Kanye track with a masterful sampling of Lauryn Hill. Meanwhile, some of the best tracks here happen to be some of the darkest and most introspective: on ‘Jonah’, Lil Durk heart-wrenchingly raps about his father getting out of prison after 26 years only to see his son killed shortly after (“Twenty six years, pops out to see his son killed”). Songs like this offer an insight into what ‘Donda’ *should* have been; an inward-looking, heart-felt and intimate album that prioritises quality over quantity.
The ultimate highlight here however, is the album’s very first full-length song ‘Jail’. On it, Kanye, Jay-Z and Francis and The lights team up for a subtly-politically charged anthem about reckoning with the inherent unfairness of our political and law enforcement system, realising in real time the predestination of your fate and instead of fighting it, sticking two fingers up to it, embracing freedom for the short time it lasts and refusing to give your oppressors the one thing they want and expect most from you – your fear. (*sigh*, If only Marilyn Manson wasn’t on backing vocals here).
After 2019’s ‘Jesus Is King’ and it’s follow up ‘Jesus Is Born’, ‘Donda’ is, unsurprisingly, an overtly and unapologetically religious album. West’s commitment to his faith is no doubt genuine and sincere, but listening to ‘Donda’, you can’t help but think that surely someone as devotedly religious as West could find better language to channel his faith other than a repeated slew of predictable and well trodden references to angels and devils. There’s nothing wrong with an album largely dedicated to God but so many have done it and done it better. Just look to a release from earlier this year as an example; Lingua Ignota’s ‘Sinner Get Ready’ was filled with far more vivid and visceral depictions of God and faith; and was consistently more varied, unpredictable and bracing.
On ‘Donda’, however, Kanye – for the most part – sounds less like a man depicting the complete truth of a believer, and sounds more like he’s reading a shiny brochure for some new mega Church that’s just been built down the road; sanitized, unrelentingly positive and unashamedly one-dimensional. Kanye sounds eager to advertise his faith, and so afraid to admit it doesn’t always feel like a complete salve, that he does a great disservice to the honesty and relatability of ‘Donda’. On ‘Hurricane’ – which features an excellent introduction from The Weeknd – Kanye, no sooner than hinting at feeling uncertain and pleading in faith (“Father, hold me close, don’t let me down”), reassures “I know you won’t”. He does this again on ’24’; rapping “God, please set it alright, make it right” before immediately adding “now that feels right”. Just as he begins to hint at a universally relatable, and commendably vulnerable, crisis of faith, he undercuts it and finds reassurance far more easily and quickly than anyone could realistically hope to.
There is however, one glorious exception to this rule, and it’s the excellent ‘Jesus Lord’ – a 9 minute epic that could easily be subject to it’s own essay. Aside from a “Rothschilds” reference from Jay Electronica, that sounds worryingly like a foray into an infamous anti-Semitic trope, this track is near perfect – a highlight of Kanye’s extensive discography. It begins with an appropriately transcendent and heavenly intro before exploring in heart-breaking depth, death, grief, suicidal inclination and drug-dependence. It’s filled with heartbreakingly specific portraits of desperation; of poor, pregnant teens, of those falling into cycles of violence and of Black men reduced to mere statistics. It ends with a sombre spoken word from Larry Hoover Jr about being abandoned by his father at a young age and continually hoping as a child for his return, and the opus contains the album’s strongest trio of lines: “And if I talk to Christ, can I bring my mother back to life? / And if I die tonight, will I see her in the afterlife? / But back to reality, where everything’s a tragedy.”
However, apart from a few highlights – which are truly great – we are left simply with glimpses of Kanye’s genius, rather than full realisations of it. These glimpses are scattered all across the album; leaving listeners just enough to stay engaged – a captivating moment of melancholy delivered by Kid Cudi on ‘Moon’, an inclusive spirit and a sense of urgency on ‘Heaven and Hell’, a sweet commitment to growing old with a partner on ‘Lord I Need You’: “You know you’ll always be my favourite prom queen / Even when we in dad shoes or mom jeans”. But, if ‘Donda’ was meant to be a uniformly great tribute to West’s late mother that consistently hits the right note, it’s not. It’s at least twice the length it needs to be and is in dire need of further editing. West lets himself be overshadowed by his featuring artists for the most part – a frustrating fate given that the moments when Kanye takes centre stage (‘Off The Grid’, ‘Believe What I say’) end up being some of the strongest here. Meanwhile, for an album dedicated to Kanye’s late mother, it’s disappointing that Kanye choose to cut so many spoken word segments from the woman herself and just generally deprives most of the album of a female voice. For all it’s heart, ‘Donda’ is an album that is at least as much filler as it is killer, it’s staggering highlights save it (if only barely), but while ‘Donda’ does feel like a course correction from previous misfires, it’s no return to form.
Best Tracks: ‘Jail’, ‘Off The Grid’, ‘Jonah’, ‘Believe What I Say’, ‘Moon’, ‘Jesus Lord’
Worst Tracks: ‘Tell The Vision’, ‘New Again’