Donda reflects the kind of confident controversy someone like Kanye can get away with when crafting an album as timeliness as this.
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.
Published as part of Album Roundup — August 2021 | Part 3.