Two years after his half-baked attempt at Christian rap Jesus is King, Kanye West returns with his long delayed and still contested release Donda. Named for his mother, but often not about her, Donda is the event album of the year. Hype has been built through the roof with endless listening parties, deferred release dates, changing feature lists, perplexing backstage drama, and Kanye going full Caden Cotard, moving into a stadium and building a full size replica of his childhood home. A step too far for many, including frankly myself, was when Kanye brought alleged rapist and abuser of women Marilyn Manson and DaBaby, a rapper who has recently made extremely disgusting and homophobic comments (as well as in similar fashion to Kanye, pointedly sharing the stage with Tory Lanez, the man alleged to have shot fellow rapper Megan Thee Stallion, with whom DaBaby performed immediately before bringing out Lanez). Domestic abuser Chris Brown was also allowed to contribute vocals to the album.
Building hype for an album is one thing, but sharing the stage with these characters simultaneously, and then placing them both on the same track, is a clear act of provocation and a dismissal of the credible accusations made against Manson. It’s clear what Kanye was trying to do here, it was a deliberate and cynical attempt to court controversy, endorsing and platforming abusers in order to promote his album.
This is, of course, far from the first time Kanye has played provocateur by associating with disreputable figures, most notably his infamous endorsement of and affiliation with President Donald Trump, something he refers to multiple times throughout Donda, playing into the narrative that he was merely ‘playing’ Trump to secure pardons for black inmates. Twice on the album we hear the same voice message from the son of one of these inmates, thanking Kanye for securing his father’s release. How credible we find this narrative and how we feel about supporting Kanye in light of all this, even if that support does come in the form of the few pennies outlets like Spotify give to artists per stream, is a matter of personal choice.
For my part, Kanye released Kids See Ghosts in the midst of his Trump endorsement, and that’s still one of my favourite albums of all time. However, in this case, it’s hard to divorce the album from its rollout, which with Kanye becomes part of the artistic statement of the album itself. With figures like Manson, Brown and DaBaby actually on the album itself, it does sour the music considerably and I fear it will always prevent me from ever loving Donda, even if the whole album were as good as its best moments.
The reason I’ve dwelt on the context for so long because context is content, especially when it comes to Kanye. His last album was effectively nothing more than a sub-thirty minute long public relations exercise, trying to sell his redemption arc with a rushed out, hectic piece of nothing. Although thematically Donda explores those same themes of Christianity, worship and redemption, the contrast could hardly be sharper. Donda is a beast, 27 tracks long, running at an hour and 48 minutes—it’s far and away Kanye’s beefiest release. Despite this is hardly feels his most substantive, finding him in his The Life of Pablo mode, more as a producer and guiding influence than as a rapper. He supplies a verse here or a chorus there, and the beats (co-executive produced by Kanye’s able assistant Mike Dean) are phenomenal, mixing elements of dark ambient, pop, trap and hip-hop, but the feature list is incredibly dense with barely a single track where Kanye flies solo.
Sadly, there are times when the production does feel as unfinished and amateurish as ever, the most notable example being the track “Tell the Vision”, a solo track by the late rapper Pop Smoke, on whose last posthumous album Kanye featured, also on a track titled “Tell the Vision”. Here, “Tell the Vision” is a less than two minute solo Pop Smoke track, consisting entirely of a single muffled piano loop and an extremely low fidelity recording of the late artist’s husky voice, noticeably pieced together from multiple different takes. It’s an unflattering, insincere and almost meaningless would-be tribute to a talented artist who is no longer here to consent to its release.
Perhaps the worst moment on the record does come at its finish though, with a string of what are clearly bonus tracks: versions of songs already on the album, with alternative features. One of these is “Jail Pt 2” which replaces Jay-Z with DaBaby and Manson, turning the song from a halfway sincere portrait of the fear black men face when they cross paths with the law into a gross and bitter response track about facing backlash for doing terrible things. It’s unfortunate that Kanye chose to taint his record this way, as the original “Jail” is an undoubted highlight, with euphoric lead vocals from Kanye, fantastic distorted synth bass jabs, a rad guitar riff, a triumphant, righteous verse from Jay-Z and a mesmeric beat switch on the outro.
That’s kind of how the album goes, you’ll find something amazing, and then something else will come along and waste your time for a few minutes and leave without casting much of an impression. Like The Life of Pablo this is a loose collage of an album made for fan edits to come along and clean up, like those video games that release unfinished and just let modders do the rest. “God Breathed” is redundant and repetitive, but then “Off the Grid” is an exciting trap banger with terrific performances from Playboi Carti and Fivio Foreign. “Hurricane” showcases typically blissful vocals from The Weeknd and another hungry verse from Lil Baby, but on the following “Praise God” Baby Keem’s squeaky voiced delivery is a taxing listen that outstays it’s welcome, just like many songs here.
“Jonah” is effectively a Vory track with strong features from Kanye and Lil Durk, and a bleeping synth reminiscent of the “Saint Pablo” beat, as is the whole instrumental from “Jesus Lord”, the album’s nine minute long centrepiece with fantastic storytelling from Kanye and the best verse I’ve ever heard from Jay Electronica. There’s also a shockingly good performance from Lil Yachty on “Ok Ok” and predictably fantastic performances from Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine on “Keep My Spirit Alive”. Don Toliver and Kid Cudi add harmonic flavour to “Moon” and Young Thug contributes a strong verse on “Remote Control”. The number of A-listers and rising stars on Donda could fill this whole review, and it does raise the question of how many features is too many, but with such a large personality as Kanye, it’s almost impossible for the competing voices to obscure his presence.
When he announced his newfound religious priorities, Kanye promised he’d only make worship music from here on out—all his songs would be about giving praise to God and there’d be no cursing anywhere. On Donda, he kind of technically sticks to that promise. He does name check God or Jesus in almost every verse, as do most of his guests, and you won’t hear any cursing. But not because no one is using any profanity, many of them do, including Kanye, it’s just muted or he stops himself. The whole album sounds edited for radio, it’s a cop-out, a loophole by which he can stick to his word without having to change the way he constructs his phrases or his content. Donda may find Kanye on his best form in years, with his verses only occasionally falling into redundancy, but there are still times when you can feel him struggle for control over his words, and it’s rare he doesn’t find himself outshone by his collaborators, or his own production.
Although there are few legitimately bad moments, with few exceptions, the album is listenable and engaging throughout. 27 tracks is a lot of time to fill without repeating oneself. Even with features doing a lot of the heavy lifting, praise to God is not a very layered or nuanced subject, at least not as Kanye presents it. There might be a lot more to discuss with Kanye’s relationship to God. Many rappers have wrestled with their faith and their lifestyle on record, including Kanye. But that would require a level of honesty and vulnerability he just doesn’t seem willing to show anymore. There are occasional moments when he acknowledges his internal contradictions, in one breath claiming to be all new, in another, to be the same Kanye he’s always been.
Whichever it is, it’s contextualised as something to be proud of. Throughout Donda, Kanye feels the need to sound untouchable and in control at all times. It’s no coincidence that the most revealing and vulnerable moments either come from features, as when Conway the Machine talks about his time in the hospital after an attempt on his life, or when Kanye is telling what is most likely a fictional story about a family torn apart by tragedy. He’s just not prepared to be honest with himself or his audience about who he is and what he’s going through.
The album is named after his late mother, and she appears through vocal extracts and is referenced throughout the album, but Donda never produces even a single song that feels properly focused on her and how her death impacted him. There’s no “Hey Mama” or “Roses” here—in fact the album rather lacks for real highlights in general. Its closest comparison in his catalogue is definitely The Life of Pablo, another bloated mishmash of features and loose ideas, but there’s not a single song on here as good as “No More Parties in L.A.” or “Saint Pablo”.
Arriving with as much hype as it does, it’s hard for Donda not to feel like a victory lap for Kanye and in some respects it’s deserved. It’s full of callbacks to his heyday, it’s his longest record by some margin, the feature list shows his relevance is still unparalleled, and hiding your features is always a power move. The record revisits some of the darker aesthetics of Yeezus, the loose, disconnected feel of The Life of Pablo, and the religious themes of Jesus is King, and manages to execute all of those ideas better than before. The beats are impressively exacting across the board and the features all came to play, bringing their A game with some even proving revelatory. However, despite the delays, it’s hard to say the album was ready to see the light of day, nor to shake the impression Kanye’s glory days are still behind him, and that’s if you feel like further indulging him in the first place.