On ‘Donda,’ the wild talent of one of our most accomplished artists shines through.
Last Sunday, the ever-evolving Kanye West released Donda, his tenth studio album. The rapper — and Kanye collaborator — Jay-Z once remarked that it is essentially “impossible” to rate an album properly in the immediate days after its release. To some extent, I agree with him. Time and time again, music critics have slandered albums only to praise their genius years later (and vice versa). So it’s possible that my own assessment, as well as that of others, may change over time; true understanding only flowers with patience.
My initial assessment, however, is simple: Donda is magnificent.
The album takes its name from the late Donda West, Kanye’s mother, perhaps his greatest muse. From the anthemic “Hey Mama” on The College Dropout to the anguished autotune of 808’s and Heartbreak as Kanye mourned her untimely death, Donda has long influenced Kanye’s work. Naming his latest opus in her honor is a fitting enshrinement of her musical legacy.
On Donda’s first day of availability, it racked up over 180 million streams worldwide. In its first week of release, it has become the No. 1 album in 152 countries (an all-time record) and has set the 2021 records for single-day streaming on both Spotify and Apple Music.
The album is ambitious — in its length (one hour and 44 minutes, Kanye’s longest), in its themes, and in the richness of its features. And while it is perhaps excessive concerning the first of these, it is nonetheless an accurate portrayal of Kanye himself, whose antics and public persona are frequently just that — excessive.
It is possible to enjoy the album simply by listening to it. But to understand it fully requires understanding the drawn-out, 40-day process of its release. During this period, Kanye hosted three “listening parties”: the first two in Mercedes-Benz stadium in Atlanta, the city of his birth, and the last at Soldier Field in Chicago, where he grew up. At these events, he played — but did not perform — his developing album to a stadium full of people. The play-throughs were also streamed live through Apple Music. This provided listeners with a unique insight into his creative process. With each performance, we saw changes made, feature artists added and subtracted, and a profound theatricality that helped illuminate many of the album’s themes.
The last of these listening parties — and the one that featured the album closest resembling the final product — was the most impressive visual performance of the three. Kanye assembled as his stage a replica of the childhood home where Donda West raised him. On stage with him were many of the artists featured on the album, most controversially the rapper DaBaby and the infamous Marilyn Manson. DaBaby was recently “canceled” for controversial homophobic comments and subsequently dropped from radio play, collaborative sponsorships, and half a dozen major festival lineups. His maligned public image would seemingly make him the last choice for an immediate song feature. Yet Kanye added DaBaby to the album almost immediately after his fall from the public’s grace. This was intentional, and emblematic of one of the album’s most prominent themes: redemption.
At the same Chicago listening party, Kanye donned a fire suit and was lit ablaze in what would seem to be an image of redemptive purging. He then walked through the door of his recreated home to meet his wife, Kim Kardashian (who filed for divorce in February), walking toward him in a wedding dress. The event ended in their marital embrace. As a friend put it to me: It was awkwardly public, as usual, but good if real.
Despite such public awkwardness, the gesture was powerful, and an accurate image of the redemption theme so prominent in Donda. The music itself begins on the second track of the album (“Donda Chant,” the first, is exactly what the title suggests) with “Jail,” featuring Jay-Z and Francis And The Lights. Over an electric guitar and the intricate production of Mike Dean and 88-Keys, Kanye sings, “Priors, priors, do you have any product?/we’re all liars/guess who’s going to jail tonight?” From the opening moment of the album, Kanye incriminates himself, and welcomes us to do the same.
This track also marks Jay-Z’s reunion with Kanye, long awaited by fans after some personal differences between the two in the past few years. Jay-Z raps, “Hold up, Donda, I’m with your baby when I touch back road/Told him, “Stop all of that red cap, we’re going home/Not me with all of these sins, casting stones/This might be the return of The Throne.” ‘The Throne’ is what Kanye and Jay-Z call themselves when they rap on the same song. The duo had fallen apart in the aftermath of Kanye’s Trump support and other political stunts. But acknowledging that he can’t cast stones, even against the most taboo of political emblems — the red hat — Jay-Z reconciles with West after direct apostrophe to his mother. A second part of “Jail” is played at the end of the album, and features the aforementioned DaBaby. “Man, tell them haters open up the jail/I said one thing they ain’t like threw me out like they ain’t care for me.” This again invokes the theme of reconciliation. But it carries an additional welcoming entrance to the jail of the fickle crowd, as if the crowd barely mattered at all.
“God Breathed,” the album’s third track, plays over an ambient Gregorian chant, welcoming Christianity into the themes already at play. The Christianity of Donda is far more polished and representative of Kanye than that of the seemingly rushed Jesus is King album. And it sounds better, shedding some of the janky, corny lines from songs such as “Closed on Sunday.” On “Praise God,” he sings “We gon’ praise our way out the grave / Living, speaking, praise God / Walking out the graveyard back to life / I serve, follow your word, see with new sight.” This seems to speak to both biblical promises of resurrection and Kanye’s own personal ascendance from a life of sin. He exudes a confidence in the divine throughout the album, especially in the lyrics of his interlocutors, notably The Weeknd on “Hurricane” and Vory on “Jonah.” “Jesus Lord” is one of the album’s centerpieces, a two-part, cumulatively 20-minute colloquy of faith that at once reflects on the trials of a Christian in Kanye’s spotlight (“Man it’s hard to be an angel when you’re surrounded by demons), laments his life’s traumas (“if I talk to Christ, can I bring my mother back to life?”), and evangelizes (“Tell me if you know someone that needs [Jesus, Lord]).”
We see two sides of Kanye’s representation of himself to the world on Donda: The Kanye who resents his fame and the Kayne who projects the personal into the public sphere. Concerning the former, Kanye continues his ongoing struggles: On “Heaven and Hell,” he wishes for “no more promos, no more photos.” On “Come to Life,” he asks, “Ever wish you had another life?” Rapper Roddy Rich features on “Pure Souls,” singing “Life changes when you famous, I remember back when we were nameless/and I cannot sell my soul.” Concerning the latter, he further grapples with the loss of his mother, using clips of her voice throughout the album and ultimately raising her to the divine infinite on the eponymous song “Donda.” One point of note on that personal projection is a song that Kanye removed from the album after the first listening party: “I’m Losing My Family.” A tormented lament over the separation of his family with Kim Kardashian, the song was subtracted from the final track list following his reunion with Kardashian in Chicago. Nevertheless, “No Child Left Behind” held its place as the 23rd track, a simple reflection on Kanye’s desire to be a good father. His dedication to family and fatherhood has been a prolific theme in his music since the birth of his children.
Kanye also pays homage to his hometown, making ample use of Chicago’s native drill rap style, a harsh subgenre of rap music characterized by booming bass lines and gritty delivery, on the songs “Off the Grid,” “Ok Ok,” and “Tell the Vision.” “Off the Grid” has a particular intensity, bringing listeners the best verse of feature Fivio Foreign’s career, the most focused rap I’ve heard from Kanye in ten years, and a speaker-shattering beat that practically begs to be added to gym playlists.
Kanye began his career in music as a producer in the late ’90s, and accordingly, his production has always been a crown jewel of his music. On “Believe What I Say,” he samples Ms. Lauryn Hill’s 1998 classic, “Doo Wop (That Thing),” looped over a strong bassline and topped with a melodic hook verse. Songs such as “Remote Control” and “Moon” use contemplative synths that encourage listeners to take a breath at the album’s middle point. “24” brings back the gospel choir and church organ from Jesus is King, again encouraging that Christian feel that reminds listeners again of Kanye’s faith.
Donda also sees Kanye once again as a master of promoting and assembling the talent around him. As musical kingmaker, he has helped along countless artists in the past who have now made names for themselves in the industry. On this album, he spotlights up-and-coming musicians Vory and Rooga.
But Donda is more than an amalgamation of themes, ideas, and collaborators. It is, in my view, the apotheosis of Kanye West. While the album’s massive length is somewhat onerous, and at points lends itself to wasted time, the image it renders is that of Kanye’s full realization of himself. And with West having legally filed to change his name to simply “Ye,” this album might be the last “Kanye West” album ever. It is, additionally, perhaps the most Kanye West album ever. It is disorganized and full, beautiful and harsh, arrogant in its ambition, and as invariably complex as the artist who made it. He draws unity between his Christianity and the quality of his music, lacing gospel choirs and Gregorian chants in with stellar hip-hop production. He reconciles the loss of his mother with a profound trust in the divine and in eternity, and reaches peace in her absence. He feels justified in eschewing the opinions of the public as they shun and cancel his peers and colleagues, who resort to music as their protection. He returned home to the city of Chicago, only to uplift other artists who are changing the music of his childhood. From the city where Donda raised Kanye, Kanye raised Donda, and it is everything we could have hoped for.