The announcement of a new Kanye West album — his tenth in fact — brought with it the delighted attention of the usual, dusty music-minded media institutions, desperate to hitch themselves to whatever outrageous press cycle he’d inevitably orchestrate. It would be over a year before that album materialized, initially titled God’s Country and then Donda; the revelation that West had a new project in development came about (thanks to collaborator Arthur Jafa) in May 2020, less than a year after the release of his divisive gospel pivot Jesus is King, but this quick turnaround wasn’t to be, as the planned September release date came and went with no album being made available publicly. In the album-less months that followed, West went on a media rampage attempting to upend exploitative industry standard (specifically, label’s ownership of artists’ masters) while also running an ill-conceived presidential campaign, all capped off with the announcement of he and wife Kim Kardashian-West filing for divorce in February of this year. Silence ensued (though the Yeezy brand was as strong as ever this past summer), with West quietly backing away from the MAGA provocations that had eaten up much of the discourse around his Wyoming albums, and seemingly recommitting himself to the Donda project on a bigger scale.
No doubt an enticing narrative, audience, media, and industry alike prepared for a redemption arc that wasn’t going to come, although the album’s first two Atlanta-based listening parties gestured toward a version of Donda that was likely to please the skeptics and assuage the concerns of those anxious to enjoy West’s music and persona in a way they felt they no longer could. With excitement for the album reaching a peak unseen by West for some years, he refused the album’s release for another week, this time staging a listening party in Chicago with a new version of Donda that was basically the same except for some rather aggressive feature-shuffling inspired by fan reaction and unabashed antagonism in equal measure. In most cases, these changes are for the better (and the version of the album ultimately released contains these alternate takes as bonuses anyhow), but West’s choice to pull a much-hyped reunion with Jay-Z on “Jail” in favor of a mix that features backing vocals from shunned shock rocker Marilyn Manson (credibly accused of sexual assault and grooming earlier this year) and a verse from DaBaby (who spent this past summer setting his reputation aflame with a series of homophobic comments and conforntational non-apologies) instantly cast Donda as a celebration of male toxicitiy in the eyes of many who only doubled-down when the album actually came out.
When music writers descended upon Donda in the day(s) following its August 29th release, it was this narrative that took up the majority of discussion, with websites who had covered it every step of the way now turning around to write about the ugliness of this media circus. This is, of course, the uncomfortable genius of West’s career-spanning project, enmeshing himself within the media apparatus to the point where they’re totally complicit, anything and everything they do becomes an act of mutual promotion (there’s an amusingly faux-tough “we made you so we can break you” tone to some of the bigger Donda reviews). Which isn’t to say that West’s inclusion of Manson and continued use of Chris Brown’s unfortunately pretty vocals (originally on “New Again,” blessedly no longer on the album) isn’t tedious and ugly, an understandable deal-breaker for many perhaps, but that who the media allows to get away with what isn’t decided from a place of moral clarity (lord knows internet music critics are the last people we should look to for ethical consistency), but rather only what is convenient and profitable at the time (most cleanly illustrated in the rush to position noted ephebophile Drake as his moral superior).
But beyond the loud hand-wringing and bad faith outrage over whether West properly paid homage to his late mother the right way, Donda stands as another milestone in the Kanye West discography, one that will surely outlast the derangement syndrome it (consciously) induced. At a runtime of 108 minutes, Donda takes West back to the expansive, cinematic canvases he indulged pre-Yeezus (give or take the similarly structured Life of Pablo) while slickly synthesizing concepts and sounds drawn from across his career. Something of a male melodrama, Donda exists as a testament to the spirit of Donda West as manifested by Kanye through his art (the title track features a speech delivered by Donda herself, tellingly concluding with the prompt “What did I teach him / And why Kanye ain’t scared?”) This album, bulky as it is, moves through distinctive phases — hyped-up, radio-ready pop rap, gospel maximalism, and then something in between — so that it may be legitimately experienced both as a collection of distinctive singles and as one complete work. Poetically opening on a recitation of the title name by College Dropout-era collaborator Syleena Johnson (“Donda Chant”), Donda then breaks forth into the aforementioned “Jail,” a rock-star track that not only reunites The Throne, but serves as a thesis statement for the album and Kanye’s career at large (“I’ll be honest / We all liars”).
The album goes on to impress as both a reassertion of West’s considerable talents as a producer and songwriter (“Heaven and Hell” and “Believe What I Say” providing big solo moments), and a venue for star-making turns, gifting ascendant performers like Fivio Foreign and Baby Keem career-defining verses on “Off The Grid” and “Praise God’,’ respectively. Were the album simply this — a collection of sharply-produced hits, Donda would already be memorable enough, but West’s imagination encapsulates the fantastic pop spectacle as much as it does high-minded morality play, bringing together the spontaneous personal narrative that has dictated his last several albums with the sweeping, loosely-fictionalized narratives he wove in throughout the first four. Album centerpiece “Jesus Lord” and its sweeping, nearly 12-minute Part 2 anchors this approach confidently, interweaving a fictionalized tale of cyclical violence in the Black American community recontextualized initially by an impressive, fiercely-political verse from Jay Electronica (and rap icons The Lox on the second take) and then again by the words of Larry Hoover Jr., speaking on the unjust and cruel life imprisonment of his formerly gang-affiliated father. Surely a testament to the monumental vision of Kanye West 44 years into his time on Earth, “Jesus Lord,” and Donda, express the artist’s continued ability to navigate in between the past and present, public and private, egotistical and spiritual with a bemused deftness irresistible to haters and obsessives both (and what’s the difference, really?). We are likely past the point where a Kanye album can ever be received without ample asterisking, but this is also totally by design, the sort of confident controversy that one can embrace when they make an album as timeless as this.
Big Red Machine
After what was assumed to be a one-off record, Big Red Machine returns with How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?, another highly collaborative record packed with big name guest appearances. This latest effort is certainly more pop-forward than their self-titled debut, and it notably picks up the sounds of the various guest artists more than it deepens the the sonic template of core members Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Aaron Dessner (The National). Still, the duo’s project manages to impress where it needs to, and despite the sonic pivot, ends up a considerable work in its own right..
It’s true that Big Red Machine’s self-titled record featured plenty of collabs from artists like Phoebe Bridgers, Lisa Hannigan, Richard Parry, and a number of other close members of the Bon Iver/The National circle, but their contributions there seemed somewhat more behind-the-scenes, with fewer lead vocals afforded and more writing credits and instrumental work. What resulted was an experimental work, effectively creating a new artist’s canon rather than being an embedded part of any individual player’s work. This made for a remarkably hard line to toe without crossing, and indeed, it feels like How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? decides to simply cross it immediately. Lead singles featured Anaïs Mitchell, who recently won a Tony for her musical Hadestown, and Taylor Swift who is, well, Taylor Swift. Resultantly, the singles felt more like new pop cuts courtesy of these featured artists rather than a new Big Red Machine track, and the current algorithmic state of music promotion could tell. Streaming services racked up millions of plays within hours of release, a feat that neither Dessner nor Vernon could have imagined when the former reached out via Myspace to ask to collaborate in what would become the project’s humble beginnings.
On the other hand, hearing Robin Pecknold (Fleet Foxes) on a Big Red Machine track feels right, as if he had been deeply embedded from the start, and speaks to the core duo’s skill at folding in aesthetic peers. There’s certainly a bigger conversation to be had about star power and how/if it can be effectively wielded, or if it inherently creates a fatal power imbalance in any collaboration with a smaller artist. While that consideration extends far beyond How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?, the record does feel like a microcosm of that study in action. The most obvious result of this is that some great tracks on this album will be heard by millions of people who would not have otherwise sought them out or even stumbled upon them, a win for an industry swayed by streaming numbers and popular buzz. Another likely result, however, is that a bevy of beautiful tracks here will be lost in the shadow of star-fronted cuts. And while this philosophical fracture is tough to reckon with on a scale beyond that of a single album, it also has functional implications on Big Red Machine’s latest: there’s a notable rift between tracks across the album, a lack of cogency that makes the effort feel like a collection of singles rather than a cohesive package. The flip side is that the listening experience is an easy one, the album playing a bit like a greatest hits collection, flitting between sweeping tracks.
Big Red Machine has long proved enticing in their commitment to making more experimental the sounds of folksy, indie rock that both artists were so adept with. Even before their self-titled debut, the pair were most interested in pushing their sonics in a way that would allow for mutual growth. For its part, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? avoids pushing for that growth and opts instead to settle into a sound that wasn’t quite developing on the previous record, planting roots in pop sounds and familiar hooks. A risky movement, to be sure, but thankfully the artistry of Desnner, Vernon, and friends keeps things distinctly listenable if less ambitious and whole, and even produces some of the best songs the outfit has managed in their decade-plus of collaborating. How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? carries some baggage with it, but this just means its ultimate success is all the more worth celebrating.
Deafheaven, either by elaborate design or by complete circumstance, have painted themselves into a creative corner, one that isn’t and has never been all that shocking a destination for them to end up at. After all, there really was only one band who could possibly take with the whole shoegaze black-metal thing they had going for themselves — a sound they had taken to some stimulating extremes on their first three solo albums, and sort of faltered with a bit on their fourth — and now all but abandon it with their latest, Infinite Granite. Which for any other band would be a refreshing change of pace, one that should be welcomed and embraced by naysayers who have accused them of being one-trick ponies. Thing is, that would require the outfit to produce a record that had any semblance of vitality, one that actually took some risks instead of lopping off the harsh extremities of their sound. In short, this is still very much a Deafheaven album in terms of proficient technical artistry — the type that never becomes too outright abstruse — now just minus everything else that made them unique in the first place. It’s Deafheaven without the “deaf,” only the “heaven.”
So instead of being treated to frontman George Clarke’s traditional shrieking screamo vocals that would pummel the listener’s eardrums, we now have him giving undistinguished, weak, nasally performances that are as non-descript as most of the instrumental choices that follow; he’s never had much range as a vocalist, which wasn’t much of a factor before, but is outright crippling in this specific context. Especially since his faux-poetic lyrics are now as coherently articulated as ever (always an element even the most dedicated of fans would tune out) and which only exacerbates Infinite Granite’s most pressing issue: Deafheaven has traded in ferocity for stoicism, which, frankly, makes for a rather dull and lifeless listening experience. Their intense progressions, tight song structures, and towering and tonal sense of punishment and pleasure are all gone, replaced by a monotonous sense of abreaction. It’s a complete wash of post-rock cliches, where the closest they come to their original vibe is, fitting enough, on closer “Mombasa,” erupting at the tail end beyond the bounds of mere sonic wallpaper — but by that point, it’s too little too late. This is perhaps the hidden objective behind this arduous excursion: by demonstrating how placid their music could be, it’ll make listeners want more of the same and feel ashamed for ever demanding more. Mission accomplished, I guess?
The Ballad of Dood and Juanita may or may not go down as the defining Sturgill Simpson album — at this juncture, it’s tough to imagine anything supplanting Metamodern Sounds in Country Music as his quintessential work — but it’s surely the one that does the most with the least. More to the point: It’s the one where Simpson sounds like he’s having the most fun. Following his Cuttin’ Grass sessions, rollicking records where Simpson revisited his back catalog with the help of ace bluegrass pros, Dood brings the same aesthetics (and many of the same players) to a set of all-new originals. Running lickety-split through 28 minutes of high-and-lonesome twang (it’s about 40 seconds longer than Waylon Jennings’ classic Honky Tonk Heroes), the album tells the story of a rugged Kentuckian named Dood who opts out of the Civil War and says no-thanks to the miner’s life, instead setting up a nice little farm and settling into domesticity with his beloved Juanita. When she is abducted by dastardly outlaw Seamus McClure, Dood sets out with rifle, horse, and hound to rescue his wife, and possibly enact some vengeance on the man who snatched her away. It’s an exercise in myth-making that can’t help remind you of The Red-Headed Stranger, and not only because Willie Nelson himself blesses “Juanita” with a glistening nylon-string solo. It’s also a mean feat of storytelling efficiency: In less than half an hour, Simpson gives us backstory, a full narrative arc, and an epilogue, which leaves him just enough room for a song extolling Juanita’s beauty and another proclaiming the faithfulness of Dood’s hound.
Those looking for subtext will be amply rewarded: Make whatever you will of Sturgill’s open-ended use of American archetypes (he’s specific about things like the kind of rifle used, to name just one example) and personal history (Dood and Juanita happen to be the names of his grandparents). At the very least be aware that, while not exactly a revisionist Western, Simpson’s tale does navigate the usual Manifest Destiny issues with more thoughtfulness and complexity than is customary of the form; his Dood is half Shawnee where outlaw Seamus is seemingly just a random white dude, and their ultimate meet-up flips convention in a way that brings Quentin Tarantino to mind. But if Dood feels surprisingly weighty in how it monkeys with our assumptions about masculinity, redemption, and violence, it ultimate lingers in the mind for Simpson’s clear affection for the concrete particulars: His old-time gospel harmonizing about the dog feels wonderfully distinct, as does Dood’s acknowledgement that he has no idea how Juanita got her name. (“There’s no senoritas from the mountains where you came,” he muses.) All these loving nouns are carried by the rush of country and mountain music traditions, played with deftness, leanness, and just the right amount of whimsy from Simpson and his wrecking crew. Traditional without ever feeling self-consciously old-timey, Dood plays to Simpson’s strengths better than some of his more recent sonic excursions, admirable though some of those may have been. It adds up to a hell of a good time: An album that doesn’t overstay its welcome but does pack pleasure into every last second.
Imprisoned for over two years at this point, East Florida croon rapper YNW Melly has managed to keep up a steady release of quality projects, seemingly rationing out a rather large archive of pre-arrest material over two mixtapes and Melly vs. Melvin, his 2019 studio album debut. Working around the brutal constraints of his incarceration as he awaits sentencing, Melly has landed some hits and built a fanbase in short order, parlaying his viral (semi-controversial) hit “Murder on My Mind” and much-memed mugshot into a Kanye collab (“Mixed Personalities”) and rather high profile releases for mixtape We All Shine and the aformentioned Melly vs. Melvin (which managed to clear a sample of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”).
Staying on course, superficially at least, Melly has returned this year with his most star-studded album yet, Just a Matter of Slime. Also his most compact project, coming in at a still-healthy 43 minutes, Slime isn’t necessarily out of sync with the Melly discography thus far, though, as implied by the title, it scans as something of a placeholder. Its release was delayed over a month to accommodate the addition of two more songs to pad out the initial ten-song tracklist (one of which is a remix of the 2018 single “Freddy Krueger” that adds on a new Future feature), Slime feels loose and low stakes, a series of strong singles grouped together to remind audiences of Melly’s range of skills and aesthetic preferences. Album opener “Mind of Melvin” may be the lone exception, an (inappropriately timed) Lil Uzi Vert collab steeped in Melly mythos (detailing the anime-esque origins of Melvin and Melly’s first encounter) that has the rappers finding common ground over their reputation for bouts of personality-altering psychosis. A provocative narrative track, “Mind of Melvin” implies a bigger, cohesive vision that never quite manifests, though the songs that follow offer some prime Melly moments, like the warbly sincerity of “Pieces” R&B refrain and a first-time collab with Young Thug on “Caprisun Fun,” a pairing so natural that it creeps close to autopilot (but not quite!). This might be the simplest way of characterizing Just a Matter of Slime, which confidently reintroduces us to YNW Melly, but doesn’t aim for much more. Of course, much of this is beyond Melly’s control as an incarcerated person, his career’s momentum inevitably hobbled, but optimistically, Just a Matter of Slime indicates he has every intention of pushing past this moment and can credibly do so.