Review: Donda

Kanye West has a long, complicated and controversial legacy. From interrupting people on award show stages, to bashing abolitionist heroes and multiple failed bids for the U.S. presidency, the shock and awe factor never completely fades from his public image. The release of West’s tenth studio album “Donda” continues this trend.

Prior to the release of the album, West took up a residency at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA. Along with setting up a provisional recording studio to finish the album, West hosted two listening parties in the stadium. Social media feeds have been dominated by people sharing videos of and discussing the turbulent nature of these events. Multiple release dates had been given for the album: originally July 24, then Aug. 6, 13 and so on, until the album unexpectedly released on Aug. 29. There is also controversy that has risen from a post made on West’s instagram on Aug. 29 claiming that Universal released the album without West’s permission. 

At a final listening party in Chicago, many fans were unsure of what to think when West brought DaBaby and Marilyn Manson onstage, both musicians who have faced prominent controversy in the last year over homophobic comments and abuse allegations, respectively. This confusion is a theme throughout the album itself; named after West’s English professor mother, Donda West, themes of Christianity and love are harshly juxtaposed with self-aggrandizement and sexuality. One gets the sense that this album was so heavily delayed because West was somewhat unsure of what he wanted to say with it. 

Donda’s twenty-seven tracks span an impressive hour and forty-eight minutes, making it the longest project in West’s discography. The runtime is a stark departure from his most recent projects. His 2018 album “ye,” his “KIDS SEE GHOSTS” collaboration album with Kid Cudi and his 2019 “JESUS IS KING” album all clock in under 30 minutes. Donda is certainly a good example of the long-spoken phrase “more is not always better.” Although there are some great gems on the album, it is ultimately dense and exhausting to sift through.

The album opens with the “Donda Chant,” and as West’s late mothers’ name is repeated it enters the realm of semantic satiation, setting the tone for much of the album. West’s history of amazing musical production and thought-provoking lyrics becomes a distant memory as he spits forgettable bars and provides sometimes basic production. Are these reflections of problems with Kanye’s newer work in general, or is it just because this album is so damn long? If Donda is a concept album dedicated to West’s late mother it ultimately misses the mark. It’s half-baked like getting someone whisky stones as an anniversary gift. 

The first few tracks on the album create a somewhat interesting introduction, but “God Breathed” begins to show the overarching problems with Donda. West comes close to endorsing his album as scripture as he repeats “I know God breathed on this” and the nearly three-minute outro quickly becomes repetitive and boring. The fifth track, “Hurricane,” is one of the album’s best. The Weeknd’s magnetic voice singing the hook is supported by West’s Sunday Service Choir, and Lil Baby and West’s verses include some great songwriting. West’s verse speaks on his difficulties during his marriage to Kim Kardashian and also includes one of my favorite lyrics on the album: “Dropped out of school, but I’m the one that Yale.”

The next few tracks are pretty unremarkable, but “Jonah” has some nice vocal work by Kentucky-bred musician Vory. “Ok Ok” contains lyrics that highlight the contradictory nature of the album, like “Everything I do is solely for the broken youth, I just took her over the mountain with my index.” It reads like something that Bo Burnham would write parodying modern rap – think “Oh Bo.” When West raps about wanting to be nailed to the cross in “Believe What I Say” one has to wonder if this was penned about West wanting to be selflessly or selfishly Christ-like. I am led to believe the latter, since the man calls himself “Yeezus”.

The latter part of the album improves a lot from the first 10 tracks. “24”  is a touching tribute to the late Kobe Bryant, whom West quoted as “one of my best friends” in an April 2020 GQ interview. It is undeniably the standout feature of the Sunday Service Choir on the album and one of the true gems on Donda’s lengthy tracklist. “Remote Control” is an unnecessary song that ends with a confusing sample of the nonsensical “The Globglogabagalab” (a song from the horribly animated 2012 film Strawinsky and the Mysterious House that had previously become popular as a meme). God DEFINITELY breathed on that, Yeezus! I wish I could say I was caught completely off-guard by this, but after Justin Bieber sampled MLK on “Justice” and clipped it to sound like “You die when you refuse to believe in Justin” I realized sampling is for everyone, even the gremlins. Kanye is as Kanye does. 

The middle section of the album, from “Moon” to “Jesus Lord”  is when the album finally reaches its prime. I think that these tracks could be characterized as leading up to the thesis of the album: “Jesus Lord.” Don Toliver, Kid Cudi and West join together for the most melodious chorus on Donda on “Moon.” Kid Cudi has grown to have a sort of Midas touch with his music lately, even featuring Phoebe Bridgers on an album, so it’s not surprising that this song is shaping up to be a critic and fan favorite. On the epic “Jesus Lord,” West finally delves into his mother on this track and discusses her impact throughout his life. 

Verses about the harsh reality of growing up impoverished cut deep and Jay Electronica’s feature has some pretty good bars for Christian rap. We reach some of the most poignant lines on the album, where West describes his mother as the “life of the party” and wonders, “… if I talk to Christ, can I bring my mother back to life?”  This is where Donda finally lives up to its namesake. some of the really stellar production we’ve come to expect from West. As the song continues, West includes a message from Larry Hoover Jr, the son of a Larry Hoover Sr, whom if you recall in 2018 West pleaded President Trump to grant clemency to. When Hoover Jr. thanks West, it feels more earned than it would somewhere previously on the album. There is finally a clear idea of West grieving his mother and thanking her for the impact she has had on his life, as well as committing himself to bettering the world to honor her.

Unfortunately, the album continues after “Jesus Lord ” with a Pop Smoke song that has some of the worst production and mixing on the album, with horribly filtered and fading vocals put over two bars of piano that repeat for the entire track After the negative reception to Pop Smoke’s recent posthumous album, why did West feel the need to keep this on the album? “Lord I Need You” and “Come to Life” give us a look into Kardashian and West’s separation marked by clear introspective contemplation and acceptance. “Come to Life” features some of the best vocal work from West singing and rapping about the idea of reflection upon his marriage and his fear of passing away alone. “No Child Left Behind” features one of the most earnest choruses on the album, with West singing “He’s done miracles on me” with reverie. It’s an excellent way to end the Donda saga – or, it would be without the last tracks.

The final four tracks are remixes of  “Jail,” “Ok Ok,” “Junya” and “Jesus is Lord.” They don’t really add too much to the album in my opinion, and especially not “Jail pt 2” which features DaBaby and Marilyn Manson. At least Manson has the consideration to be barely noticeable on the chorus.

So do I recommend you give Donda a listen? Yes, but prepare for some skips. They’re typically inevitable for an album of this size, and I wish Kanye West had given us the gracious gift of a shorter one, but who are we to expect anything average from Ye. If you can manage to look past the odd samples and throwaway tracks this is a decent album from one of hip-hop’s greatest minds. I do fear, however, that because of West’s ever-inflating ego, that we’ll never come back to the greatness of Yeezus or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.