- Ian Heft
The Beautiful Mess of Kanye West’s Donda
After four hundred days of delays, multiple reworks, and countless missed release dates, Kanye West dropped his highly-anticipated tenth solo album Donda, on the morning of August 29th. The album allows the 45-year-old rapper to flex his musical muscles and showcase the many Kanyes fans have fallen in love with: mentor, collaborator, lyricist, vocalist, and producer, spread over 27 tracks. While many songs sound unfinished (and they very well may be, as West announced that the album was released without his consent), and there is little cohesive concept throughout, the album contains an impressive array of bars, vocals, and production from West and the many featured guests. At the end of the day, the record is very much like its creator; both manic and reflective, controversial and emotional, and ultimately, pretty damn good.
Donda is named after West’s mother, who passed away in 2007. Clocking in at a staggering 109 minutes (yes, that’s right, nearly 2 hours), Donda is both a continuation and antithesis of West’s 2019 Christian album Jesus Is King. Nearly four times as long as JIK, Donda is not explicitly a Christian album, but dives into the themes of faith, family and God that the West barely skimmed the surface on two years prior. But unlike JIK, which contained a few short repurposed tracks from the infamous Yandhi sessions tweaked to have a more religious aura, Donda has a number of longer tracks with impressive features.
The album begins with the short interlude “Donda Chant”, where a female voice repeats the name of West’s mother repetitively, lulling listeners into an unsettled confusion that dissolves quickly with the de facto opening track, “Jail”. With a deceptively simple guitar riff and distorted melodic vocals, “Jail” is one of the highlights of the album and about the closest thing to a Kanye rock song. The back end of the track features a great verse with some incredible bars from Jay-Z (“Pray five times a day, so many felonies” [fell-on-knees]), who raps about the “return of the Throne” duo, reuniting the two rappers after an on and off feud. Fans were upset at one of Donda’s listening parties when Jay-Z’s verse was replaced by a DaBaby feature, but Jay-Z occupies the spot here with DaBaby being relegated to “Jail pt 2,” a bonus track remix of the song that includes vocals from disgruntled heavy metal artist Marilyn Manson. But while a little bit of an odd opener, “Jail” whisks the listener right into West’s life, where he sings about the metaphorical jail that he feels trapped in while he struggles with his mental health, family, and religion.
After the eerie “God Breathed,” Donda enters one of its strongest stretches, with three fan-favorite tracks, “Off The Grid,” “Hurricane,” and “Praise God”. “Off the Grid” features rappers Playboi Carti and Fivio Foriegn trading guest verses over a drill beat with a flute loop that will go down as one of West’s finest production credits. West delivers a fine hook and Carti does his thing, but once NY Drill artist Fivio Foreign enters the track enters a new gear with booming 808s and drum kicks. At nearly the four-minute mark, West steps in, giving one of his best verses in the last decade. West delivers classic quotables like “I got this God power, that's my leverage / I got this Holy Water, that's my beverages,” and “I keep it clean, but it can get messy / I talk to God everyday, that's my bestie / They playin' soccer in my backyard, I think I see Messi,” that will be sure to pop up in Instagram captions over the next few months.
“Hurricane,” which is the only known reworked track from Yandhi, adds another two strong features with an ethereal hook from the Weeknd (his first collab with Kanye since 2016’s “FML”) and a smooth verse from Lil Baby (who hopped on the track after West infamously tweeted “Lil Baby my favorite rapper” last year). Powerful organs enter during West’s verse, giving the track a heavenly feel as he raps about his support from God and personal success. And while West appears only briefly on “Praise God,” Travis Scott (who is West’s ex[?]-kinda-brother-in-law) and Baby Keem carry the trap-oriented track.
Despite being the namesake of the album, Donda West curiously receives little mention over the course of the project. While early drafts of the album played at listening parties had powerful recordings of Donda West speaking on a number of tracks, she only has a small part on the official release. Two tracks were curiously left off of the album: “South Carolina,” an extended version of the interlude “Donda” that features both Donda West and Pusha T, and “Never Abandon Your Family” featuring Donda and harrowing vocals from Kanye about his relationship with his parents. Both would have been key tracks on the album and added tons to the theme of family.
Features are plentiful over the course of the album. After having just a few guests on Jesus Is King, West enlists plenty of help on Donda. In fact, over half of the lyrics are performed by featured artists. This isn’t necessarily bad, as the 45-year-old West gets to showcase some of his favorite artists, old and new while still getting more than enough time to shine. However, it's clear that certain feature tracks should have been left on the cutting room floor. Somehow, West manages to misuse a posthumous Pop Smoke feature: “Tell the Vision” is just an embarrassing half-assed version of the track from Pop Smoke’s posthumous album Faith where West is notably absent, while “Ok Ok pt 2” cuts rapper Lil Yachty’s strong verse from part one for an unnecessary verse from dancehall artist Shenseea.
And unfortunately, just as Kanye gives, Kanye takes. One of the most bizarre changes to the album replaced a key West collaborator with a sample from a Christian children's movie. While the version of “Remote Control” played listening party featured a strong Kid Cudi verse on its back end the track was ‘revamped’ to include the The Globglogabgalab [Official]. Luckily, not all of the features were removed– high profile guests get ample time and add a lot to the project, like Vory and Lil Durk on “Jonah,” Don Tolliver and Kid Cudi on “Moon,” Roddy Rich on “Pure Souls,” Playboi Carti (again) on “Junya” and Vory once again on the closing track “No Child Left Behind.”
West’s spiritual awakening comes more into the forefront during the album’s final leg, which is thematically the strongest part of the project. “Jesus Lord” and “Lord I Need You” are both powerful emotional tracks, although the former suffers from an extended runtime (8:59, 11:31 including bonus verses) and the latter feels too brief (2:42). “Jesus Lord” features an technically proficient but thematically unnecessary verse from Jay Electronica, while “Lord I Need You” has background vocals from West’s Sunday Service Choir.
But one of the best tracks of the album finds West singing solo over a beautiful piano melody. “Come to Life” is West as vulnerable as we’ve ever seen him, and will go down as one of his finest, most emotional tracks. Some lyrics are simple, but the vocals are beautiful. “I been in the dark for so long / Night is always darkest 'fore the dawn / Gotta make my mark 'fore I'm gone / I don't wanna die alone” croons West. During his final listening party West lit himself on fire during the track’s debut, a curious choice, but one that provided a stunning visual to go along with the powerful instrumentation on the track.
“Come to Life” then transitions pretty seamlessly into “No Child Left Behind,” the most instrumental closer to the album. It’s somber and religious, and West’s repetition of the line “He’s done miracles on me,” achieves the effect that “Donda Chant” fails to. Its a strong ending, but unfortunately, it goes right into the “pt 2” tracks that would have better been suited for a deluxe album release.
Ultimately, Donda is a flawed album. It is too long, too bloated, and too thematically unkempt to rank among West’s finest works. But at the same time, I find it hard to justify some of the project's mixed reception from fans. Donda has all of the parts that makes Kanye Kanye, a mix of the bravado and vulnerability that he is known for. And while it can be hard to take in at times, it is Kanye’s personality that makes the album a rewarding listen. That, and the fantastic production that Yeezy is known for. I was not expecting a classic from West, and Donda certainly isn’t, but at the end of the day, is a great collection of songs that should propel West into his third decade of relevancy.
ALBUM SCORE: 7.9/10
FAVORITE TRACKS: “Jail,” “Off The Grid,” “Hurricane,” “Believe What I Say,” “Moon,” “Come To Life”