Social media antics: check. Elaborate listening parties: check. Disastrous release schedule: check. Kanye West’s long anticipated tenth studio album ‘Donda’ is finally here.
Kanye West’s public image has been on a steady decline following a summer of intense productivity back in 2018, where he served as producer on five albums. Since then a string of missed album drops have been punctuated by the Chicago producer’s usual antics; buddying up with Donald Trump, publicly advocating against abortion, and the implosion of his marriage to Kim Kardashian. Simultaneous with all this, Kanye has been manifesting a redemption arc of sorts. Touring with the Sunday Service gospel choir, he is supposedly a man of renewed faith. For many fans, Kanye’s erratic behaviour traces all the way back to the death of his mother in 2007, with his celebrity persona preventing him from fully processing this traumatic event. Donda, which is named after Kanye’s late mother, promises to be an introspective confrontation on this loss.
But we know Kanye doesn’t do things the conventional way. The appearance of Kanye’s mother on the title track—a sombre mood piece that features a speech from his mother—describes him as “so decidedly different”, and that describes the artist’s unique approach to Christianity in Donda. Duality has been a feature of much of Kanye’s discography—from the bombastic juxtaposition of fame and family in albums like The Life Of Pablo, to his personal struggle with Bipolar Disorder as explored in Ye—but here it feels less like a theme and more a glitch.
Donda jumps between conventional Kanye hip hop tracks and more spiritual numbers. Kanye’s work with the Sunday Service gospel choir makes up a huge part of Donda’s DNA; the album is packed with synthesized organs and chanting, but often these themes are undone by their corresponding tracks. “24” feels like it could have been included in the Sunday Service album Kanye produced back in 2019, with it’s paired back production reminiscent of the live footage we saw from the corresponding tour. Kanye’s performance on this track is endearing, singing “I know you’re alive and God’s not finished” with a level of earnestness that is rare for him. However, the song ultimately feels like a diversion when framed between ‘Believe What I Say’—which samples Lauryn Hill for an infectious dance beat—and ‘Remote Control’—a slow brooding song that builds to a truly creepy (and meme baiting) final sample of “the Globglogabgalab”.
The strongest moments on Donda are where Kanye’s loud personality comes through. ‘Heaven and Hell’ looks on the tracklist like another gospel track, but it is surprisingly hard-hitting and features an incredibly focussed Kanye verse which climaxes into a tumultuous, but powerful, scat.‘Hurricane’—with its hook being recycled from the never released Yandhi—is an emotional highpoint on the album with The Weeknd’s vocals on the chorus complementing the moody production beautifully. ‘Moon’, coming to an Apple ad near you (and just whilst we’re calling it I cannot wait for the inevitable ‘Jail’ Tik-Tok memes), is one of the more restrained and beautiful tracks, featuring a hopeful Kid Cudi. Donda’s sound is refreshed late on with the appropriately placed ‘New Again’ boasting an electric beat and playful tongue-in-cheek verses which feel like vintage Kanye: “If I hit you with a ‘W-Y-D?’/You better not hit me with a ‘H-E-Y’/It better be like ‘Hiii’ with a bunch of I’s/Or ‘Heyyy’ with a bunch of Y’s”.
Other stand-out tracks are ‘Off The Grid’—with top-of-their-game features from Playboi Carti and Fivio Foreign—and ‘Keep My Spirit Alive’ which channels an old-school hip hop feel through Westside Gunn and Conway The Machine’s urgent and upbeat verses. A more subdued moment on the album, which really shouldn’t be, is Jay-Z’s verse on ‘Jail’. Jay-Z raps ‘this could be the return of the Throne’ (referring to their collaboration in late 2011), but the production on the track feels lacklustre and repetitive, a problem only exacerbated by ‘Jail pt. 2’ which is a case of same song, different features. The tracks feel woefully undercooked, as does ‘Tell The Vision’ which is built around a sporadic piano sample that becomes grating incredibly fast.
It’s because of moments like this that Donda never reaches the kind of prophetic conclusions Kanye has reached at the end of albums like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or The Life Of Pablo. Attempts at being profound are often lost amongst throw-away references to Lionel Messi or underdeveloped tracks. Donda is overblown, messy, and beautiful, but for all its reaching towards the heavens, it doesn’t have near enough moments where it manages to touch the sky.
Words by Jake Abatan
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