Review: Kanye West, ‘Donda’

West’s long-awaited tenth album is a colossal playlist of joy, scattered with remarkable songs tainted by indecision and exhausting context.

The Kanye West album rollout is quite the fad by this point. Though a common theme throughout his career, it became most glaring during 2016’s The Life of Pablo, which underwent plenty title changes, tracklist tweaks, and post-release updates. It is now routine for the hip hop world to witness Kanye top his flamboyancy with every new album. Donda is no stranger to this; initially announced in summer 2020, the album seemed virtually shelved (among the graveyard that’s accompanied by Yandhi, God’s Country, Love Everyone, and many more), but was soon revived on the back of three public listening events and constant missed deadlines. Now supposedly available without West’s permission, Donda must once again rely on the music to bury the drama.

Even in the music, Donda is engrossed in disarray and struggles to find its focus, but still plucks songs representative of Kanye West’s talent.

Credit: Thornton Drury

Frankly, Donda is a tough album to review. There is no hip hop album of recent memory that creates a dichotomy quite like it. Stacked with close to 40 features, 27 tracks (some of which are alternative renditions of earlier tracks) and a runtime of nearly two hours. There is no album sequencing, poor sound quality and far too many tracks. But among the mess, Kanye often shows up in fine form, though largely as a curator while his own performances suffer.

With God making up the majority of its subject matter, Donda is what Jesus is King should have been. Which is what makes its ode to Donda West an ode simply by name. It could easily qualify as the Jesus is King, Part II album announced in late 2019. The lengthy, collaborative nature is The Life of Pablo reimagined, without all the colour. And somehow, it is yet another Kanye West album with its own identity.

When Donda gets it right, it is to spectacular effect. Gospel and hip hop are merged carefully on “Pure Souls”, taking the church organ production and pairing it with the album’s best hook, courtesy of Roddy Ricch. A much necessary back section led by Shenseea tees it all off to make the most complete song on the album. “Off the Grid” sees Kanye exploring ghoulish UK drill, assisted by a determined verse by Fivio Foreign and Kanye comfortably tacking a drill flow. Addictive from front to back, it is everything you want from a drill song. Kanye and Jay-Z reunite for their collaboration in nine years on “Jail”, epic in its production and dramatic hook.

Emotion was necessary on this album, amid the album title and Kanye’s hectic personal life. He achieves that on the magical “Come to Life”, one of the few tracks that is meticulously structured, all while being just one of three songs carried purely by West. This is Kanye West in peak form; the lyrics are focused, the production is progressive, and leaves a real mark on the listener (“Took your thoughts and penciled ’em in / Should’ve wrote ’em down in pen / And maybe they’ll come to life”). “Lord I Need You” also earths passionate performances, a song that touches on West’s divorce but provides a soothing feeling of optimism and hope.

But Donda is West’s most uncertain record. Indecision is what plagues Donda, from the numerous studio tracklists to the three listening events playing various versions of the album. The latter exposed West’s inability to work out the best version of his songs, something he has never struggled with until recent years. A fine Kid Cudi verse is removed from “Remote Control”, “Hurricane” underwent various evolution in its percussion work. The four extra tracks marked “Pt. 2” on the back end only confirm the lack of settlement, even if the album was released without West’s approval.

Donda also cannot find its footing when it comes to subject matter. For an album named after West’s late mother, she is rarely the focus of his verses, which more often than not opt for random streams of consciousness. Donda is therefore saved by the satisfying sound of the songs rather than West laying compelling verses.

A lengthy album can be justified in rare cases, but even the illustrious Kanye West cannot pull off 27 tracks of material. A handful of filler exist that could be cut and not be missed (“Junya”, “Donda”, “God Breathed”, “Tell the Vision”), or songs that need minor improvements. A song titled “Life of the Party” recently leaked that was on the original tracklist revealed in 2020, now accompanied by a near-perfect and thematically relevant verse by Andre 3000. With songs like these being left off the album, it only proves that Donda could be much better than what we got.

A greater sin of the album is the lack of sequencing. Donda carries the attitude of a playlist or compilation, as if its track listing had been shuffled then uploaded to streaming services. “Jail” was the last song played at the first listening event, though now opens up the album. Originally track two, “Hurricane” is shifted lower, and more can be said for the rest. It allows no consistent mood or progression, a tracklist that pinballs to frustrating effect.

Amongst all its flaws, the judgement still comes down to the quality of the songs. Many do not reach their peak, but are worthwhile inclusions that even in their current states tease moments of brilliance (“Praise God”, “Jonah”, “New Again”). Nearly every guest appearance elevate their respective tracks, whether it is Westside Gunn, Conway the Machine and KayCyy on “Keep My Spirit Alive”, Jay Electronica blessing “Jesus Lord” or the various spots by Vory. It is consistent in its gospel themes and production, misled largely through its construction rather than material.

Donda does not know when to take a breath. And somehow, the product is West’s best album since Yeezus, tugging on straws of true gems and ones that fall short of his full abilities.

7.5 / 10

Best tracks: “Jail”, “Come to Life”, “Pure Souls”, “Off the Grid”, “Lord I Need You”, “Moon”, “Hurricane”, “Jesus Lord”

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