album review

Kanye’s Power and Glory Finally Feel Finite

Donda’s messaging clashes as much as its music.

Photo: Jesse Lirola/BFA Courtesy of DONDA/
Photo: Jesse Lirola/BFA Courtesy of DONDA/

Kanye West will have you know he was born in Atlanta and raised in Chicago, cultured and well traveled thanks to the tireless drive and nurturing of his mother, the late Dr. Donda West, who moved up to the Windy City with a young Kanye in tow in the early ’80s after ending things amicably with ex-husband Ray, a talented photojournalist. Donda had just earned a doctorate in English education and wanted to teach at Chicago State University. “I was young, Black, and smart,” she wrote in her 2007 memoir, Raising Kanye: Life Lessons from the Mother of a Hip-Hop Superstar. “I could write my own ticket.”

She noticed her child’s artistic gifts very early on and took advantage of every available resource to help realize his dreams while advancing her own career and training. Donda stressed the value of education — she once found a porno stashed in teen Kanye’s bedroom and made him write a research paper on what the stuff could do to his developing brain. When his interest in schooling took a backseat to music in his first year at CSU, his mother took it hard but rolled with it. She pitched in most of the money he used to buy his first keyboard, at 14, and she trusted that the lessons she imparted to him, the local and international culture she’d introduced him to, would be of use wherever he landed, in academia or elsewhere. “I would give Kanye the world if I could,” Donda wrote. “But I guess I did the next best thing — I exposed him to the world.” The rest is modern history: The pride in education, the concern for the Black lower and middle class, and the wide-ranging cultural tastes passed on to him from his mother formed the foundations of Kanye’s inaugural trilogy of classic albums, comprising 2004’s The College Dropout, 2005’s Late Registration, and 2007’s Graduation. He lost his first supporter and fiercest ally that year, though, when Donda passed after experiencing complications following cosmetic surgery, a loss that shook Kanye up, sometimes in public. She was just 58.

The memory of his mother lives on through Kanye West’s thoughts and creative endeavors. In 2016, at a combination fashion show and aux-cord spectacle at Madison Square Garden, which unveiled his Yeezy Season 3 clothing line and his seventh album, The Life of Pablo — which, on a larger scale, reimagined the Manhattan party where Yeezus played for famous friends and civilians with good intel — West dropped a trailer for a mobile game called Only One, named after the 2014 single where he pined for a relationship between his daughter North and his late mother. Soaring in the sky on angel’s wings, Donda raced toward idyllic scenes above the clouds. “The concept is my mom traveling through the gates of heaven,” Ye told the MSG crowd. Only One slipped out of the conversation, displaced by a whirlwind of business pursuits and scandals, and later out of production, though the idea of addressing maternal love and loss in his art as directly as he had intended to with Only One kept resurfacing. It came up in 2018, when West floated the idea of using a picture of Donda’s cosmetic surgeon on the cover of an upcoming album (as an “act of forgiveness”), and again in 2020, when it was revealed that the name of the tenth Kanye album would be Donda. This summer, the rollout for Donda has doubled down on the confusing sprawl and constant tinkering of those frantic weeks when The Life of Pablo seemed to come together hurriedly amid a host of other plans, a time when you started to wonder whether making albums was Kanye’s main objective anymore. Would he rather be putting on biblical-themed operas now, producing puffer jackets and geodesic domes?

At a listening event announced on short notice for Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium in July, West paced the snow-white venue floor in total silence as new music blared. You could almost hear the beginnings of something intriguing, sketches of a gospel rap album that took the loss of West’s mother and his wife Kim Kardashian West’s recent divorce filing head on. “I’m losing my family,” West sang (in a song he wouldn’t play us again), spliced with the audio of a speech from his mother about her father, Portwood Williams Sr., and his dedication to family, which she attributed in her memoir to the early departure of his father: “He never understood what would make a man leave his family.” At the next Donda listening — held two weeks later in the same Atlanta stadium, where Kanye took up residence to keep tinkering — the music was sharper and full of notable guests, stuffed with southern rappers and gifted Chicago wordsmiths, a reminder that our marquee artist has ties to both the South and the Midwest or else an admission that the South and the Midwest are powerful epicenters in mainstream rap. Two weeks later, another listening at Soldier Field in Chicago delivered even more songs and guests. Among their number were Marilyn Manson, the shock-rock veteran with multiple sexual-assault cases pending, and DaBaby, the North Carolina rapper who was booted from several festival spots last month for callous, homophobic, serophobic remarks at Rolling Loud Miami (who also brought Tory Lanez, the Toronto artist whom Megan Thee Stallion accused of shooting her last year, to the stage at the same festival, in breach of Meg’s restraining order, and who hit a female fan at an event last March, claiming in his apology that he couldn’t see her face past the camera flash, a great reason not to swing sight unseen at someone who risked COVID for your show).

The stadium events made millions, and in doing so, they may set concerning precedents for artists willing to charge fans to listen to unfinished demos. Someone is bound to half-ass it. The public listening parties also represent Kanye’s most elaborate performance of completing an album, that harrowing stretch of weeks or months when he runs ragged tapping into the Zeitgeist and chaos ensues. In 2010, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was revealed in a campaign of weekly song drops, Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Fridays, a charm offensive designed to restore cultural cachet after his 2009 VMAs outburst. We were told that lyrics for 2013’s Yeezus were written in a rush, days prior to release. The Life of Pablo sprouted new songs and melodies between the MSG show, the Valentine’s Day 2016 release, and the weeks afterward. Between 2018 and 2019, fans tracked the transformation of the proposed ninth Kanye album, Yandhi, a collection of often raunchy secular songs, into Jesus Is King, the gospel-rap foray that won the artist his first (and only, you’d think) award for Best Contemporary Christian Music Album at the Grammys.

The Donda gigs answered the question of whether people would still show up in numbers for Kanye after the embarrassing courtship of Donald Trump, the comment about slavery being a choice, and the genuinely terrifying show of last year’s ill-advised, last-minute presidential campaign and the unfortunate political associations and restrictive, theocratic abortion stances it brought to the surface. They will. Notably, Kanye has not spoken at length on-camera since then. (His Twitter account hasn’t been updated since just before the election, though he keeps a tiny capsule collection of Instagram posts up at a time lately, backsliding on anti-IG stances spelled out in JIK songs like “Closed on Sunday”: “Hold the selfies, put the ’Gram away / Get your family, y’all hold hands and pray.”) He’s letting audiovisual spectacles do all the talking. He’s meditating on chapters from his backstory. At the end of the second Donda gig, West was lifted up into the rafters, mirroring the ascension he’d intended for us to chart in Only One. At Soldier Field, the core set piece was a replica of the home he grew up in, lit in red and orange lights, a concession since he had originally intended to set it on fire. Would Donda recount the West family history?

The official album snuck in like a thief in the night last Sunday (insofar as any Kanye album these days can be considered “official”), no less confusing than it had been a month prior. Donda is a journey into the intersections of faith, fame, and family in the life of Kanye West, among other things. It’s also a survey of modern sounds in Atlanta, Chicago, and New York hip-hop; a divorced dad’s unpacking of where it all went left; a gorgeous CCM album in its bright spots; and, in its thornier moments, a minor meditation on the plight of the canceled. “Jail,” a crunchy rock riff without any drums, opens the album in a defiant pose: “I’ll be honest, we all liars.” Jay-Z waves off West’s MAGA era in a single couplet: “Told him, ‘Stop all of that red cap, we going home’ / Not me with all of these sins, casting stones.” (Scan the credits and the presence of a “Brian Warner” — Marilyn Manson himself — leaves an ickier taste; a remix gives DaBaby space to complain about his backlash again: “I said one thing they ain’t like, threw me out like they ain’t care for me / Threw me out like I’m garbage, huh? / And that food that y’all took off my table / You know that feed my daughters, huh?”) “Jail” sets the pace for the rest of the 27-song, hundred-minute spectacle in method, if not in tone.

The album is full of perplexing twists and competing ideas and voices, but the unifying quality is a subtle minimalism that’s present in the next song, “God Breathed,” little more than a pulsating bassline and a mournful chorus of oohs resembling Gregorian chant. Silence is a prominent feature throughout the album: on “Moon,” the requisite Kid Cudi tearjerker, which, like “Jail,” is bolstered by enticing guitar and synth lines; on “Junya,” where an economic arrangement of handclaps, organs, and speaker-busting 808s provides the backdrop for a lyrical summit between Kanye West and Atlanta ad-lib master Playboi Carti; on “24,” a muted worship-band vamp featuring the Sunday Service Choir; and on “Remote Control,” where Kanye and Young Thug trade lines over a beat that keeps dropping its drums, bass, and whistling hook. It’s not clear whether Donda is a deliberate act of relative scarcity from Kanye, whose raps and hooks take up significantly less real estate here than on any album with his name attached to it since G.O.O.D. Music’s Cruel Summer, or if the emptiness is a result of the album’s hurried completion or of the artist getting lost in the process a year out from its originally planned release date. Does Kanye use the pressure of deadlines to make diamonds? Is this all part of his plan? Is there ever a plan?

Donda leaves large questions about Kanye’s life and art unanswered. You would think it would be the big divorce album, but that comes up sparingly. Dr. Donda West barely gets time either, though when she does — particularly in a hoarse-voiced verse in “Jesus Lord,” where West reflects painfully on his loss, and in the title track, a speech from Donda that explodes into a CCM worship moment on a powerful vocal from longtime Kanye collaborator the World Famous Tony Williams — it grounds both the album and the artist. Elsewhere, Christian platitudes sit strangely beside boasts about extravagant spending. Kanye gives you the hokey wholesomeness of a youth pastor and splices in the lurid, honest, reckless energy of a divorced dad in the club. Donda is church for guys who have uttered the word “streetwearification” out loud; it’s the club for guys who say “fellowship” when they mean “hang out,” less an album than a block party where the man at the center makes rounds chatting shit with youth, then settles in with friends of a certain age to vent about family life.

Kanye is a modern man, which means he’s conflicted. He doesn’t want to seem pressed until he wants your sympathy. He’s individualistic; he really wants to fit in. He jokes about all the rappers who sound like him and later borrows flows from 20-somethings. Guests carry Donda like Christ did the protagonist of the famous poem “Footsteps.” Once, Kanye showed young creatives that they mattered. Now, influencers he influenced are influencing him. The ouroboros is jarring until you remember how much of a Dr. Dre fan West has been all these years, and how much Donda takes after 2001 in the sense that the producer-rapper at the fore is using the space to show off a new generation, and to have them testify to how cool he is. Dre never rushed a job, though, and he knew to entrust tricky flows to the right pen. This album’s full of bad one-liners, dry youth-group humor. “I ain’t got my point across / Till we finally get the cross and pass the point,” West says in “Believe What I Say.” “I gotta help myself out of selfishness / I just bought a floor out of Selfridges,” he raps in “Off the Grid.” There are too many dodgy bars. It detracts from the gravity of this moment. There is chaff choking out the wheat.

You could whittle a brilliant album out of the songs where Kanye and his guests display a synergy on par with the maximalist highs of Fantasy and Late Registration. Donda shines where it does because in spite of everything, Kanye’s enduring gift, the reason he’s been able to branch out into fields beyond music, is bringing the right people into a room and delegating until they make something great. (The leaps in quality between the July-August stadium gigs seem to be testament to that.) Moments of calm like “Moon,” “24,” and “Come to Life” are some of the best music to come out of Kanye’s Christian era, this side of the pulverizing three-hit combo of “Count Your Blessings,” “Excellent,” and “Revelations 19:1” on the Sunday-service album Jesus Is Born. (Knowing some of the members of the choir have sued for unfair labor practices takes some wind out of that sail, but we’ve been there with Kanye before. Models from the Yeezy Season 3 show spoke in 2016 about long hours, strict regulations, and middling pay. You don’t make a billion being mirthful and accommodating. Just ask Jeff Bezos, who thanked overworked Amazon employees for footing the bill for him to dap the stars this summer, or union-buster Elon Musk. Do you remember when Kanye made a big fuss about giving his artists their masters back last year? What’s the latest there?) “Hurricane,” with the Weeknd and Lil Baby, is one of the better rapper-singer collaborations this year, and West doesn’t come across as labored with his flow. “Jonah,” with Chicago drill vet Lil Durk and Houston singer Vory, is breathtaking and gorgeous. On songs where Kanye leans into a classic boom-bap sound — “Lord I Need You,” “Jesus Lord,” “Keep My Spirit Alive” — you see flashes of the excellence of “New God Flow,” “Real Friends,” and “No More Parties in LA.”

Too often, though, Donda is more interested in the hybrid hip-house sound West started toying with on 2007’s “Stronger” — “God Breathed,” “Believe What I Say,” “Ok Ok,” “New Again,” and “Pure Souls” all pull from previous Kanye eras to wildly different results, but “Pure Souls” wins thanks to an incredible Roddy Ricch hook and the nerve of the Drake subs — and by chasing the coattails of rhymers 15 to 20 years Kanye’s junior. Some songs would work better rationed out as fun Kanye features on everyone else’s albums, but seated here together, they distract from the quality of the quieter songs of praise and repose that they crowd. Donda needs an editor. Next to every possible new direction — every unique blending of rap, rock, and gospel – there’s a callback to old Kanye or an attempt to bring him up to speed on modern rap trends. That balance feels careful and marketed; even the length of the album seems like an attempt to keep Kanye on trend. It is strange to witness him following anything resembling a trend.

It is also odd that an album that presents itself as a meditation on family and spirituality has gone to great lengths to involve men who are badly in need of some kind of redemption. The relative absence of women on the guest list is a misstep. The presence of Marilyn Manson and Chris Brown and the deleted verse solicited from Soulja Boy, men accused of (or, in Brown’s case, convicted for) violence against women; guest spots from DaBaby and Buju Banton, men whose anti-gay stances are documented and disastrous; and the verse from Jay Electronica, who was called out twice last year for sharing anti-Semitic tropes in his music and in posts on Twitter suggest that Kanye may be using Donda to force a dialogue about cancellation and, apparently, reconciliation. (Leading with “Jail,” a song about God having your back when you fail, and a recapitulation of the “I’m an asshole, and you’ll deal” mentality of songs like “Runaway,” also points to this.) Is Kanye leading a charge toward Christian forgiveness and redemption, or is this another act of misguided defiance from the guy who wrote “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and spent the last five years showing us the many ways that he meant it?

Whatever the case, Donda’s messaging clashes as much as its music. And there’s no rule that says an album has to have a unified narrative voice. Perhaps it is better to look at this collection as a kind of boys’-club bender after one of the bros had a bad breakup, though that framing doesn’t make the see-saw balance between righteousness and transgression, between humility and egotism, go over any easier. It’s possible to make great music exploring your private contradictions. Arguably, this is the core theme of every Kanye album at least since Fantasy. On Yeezus, he bucked wildly against maturity and fatherhood, and on The Life of Pablo, he voiced frustration with the visibility and the lofty expectations from strangers that come with fame. They were conflicted, but they were great. The new album only intermittently succeeds at the assignment. Donda is decorated sparsely and neatly, like an art gallery, but it lacks a curator’s eye for an overarching theme, and that kind of record works only when the artist has an unimpeachable batting average. West’s is all over the place. Donda achieved and expected greatness. In her name, excellence was required. Here, we’re left with sporadic, troubled, combative brilliance instead. This doesn’t feel like it’s just a phase anymore.

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Kanye’s Power and Glory Finally Feel Finite