‘Donda’ is Kanye West’s Seventh-Best Album. It’s Also a Masterwork.
Once again he is being attacked for presenting new ideas. Everyone’s finding something to hate about Donda, Kanye West’s critically panned tenth studio album, released last Sunday amid a stunt-filled extravaganza of head-fakes and delays. After three listening parties held at NFL stadiums in Atlanta and Chicago—the former of which West appeared to be living in for a number of weeks—debuting three different versions of the album, critics have moaned that Donda is an overlong, substance-free monument to toxic ego and the work of a man not only broken by his divorce from Kim Kardashian, but also suffering from a mental illness he refuses to have adequately treated.
Friends of mine—people who, notably, aren’t paid to write about music—furnished comparatively more valid complaints. There’s too much Fivio Foreign on it, one noted. True enough! Why doesn’t Kanye make normal shit anymore? another asked, getting right to the heart of the matter. It’s true that Donda doesn’t aim for the same pleasure centers that Kanye once accessed by reflex, and that it often doesn’t seem to care about any pleasure centers, period. There’s no “Gold Digger” on it, and there certainly isn’t a “Jesus Walks.” But then another acquaintance reported that he’d cried listening to “Come to Life,” a soul-baring, drumless, decidedly radio-unfriendly track where Kanye sings of spiritual and personal crisis above ascending peals of piano and organ-like synthesizer, intercut with audio of a woman speaking in tongues. When’s the last time “Gold Digger” made a grown man cry without the aid of psychedelics? “God is still alive,” Kanye proclaims at “Come to Life’s” climax. Does “Jesus Walks” have a line that’s so spiritually vexing?
To my ever-fallible ears, Kanye has made the most Wagnerian major hip-hop release in history, a heavy and difficult meditation on eternity delivered through the weirdest album rollout in recent memory. The payoff has been remarkable: Donda’s 27 tracks racked up nearly 100 million Spotify streams on its first day out, the second-biggest debut in the platform’s history. Millions are listening to a legitimately challenging record, many of them after watching the performance art blow-outs of those three listening parties, major productions in which Kanye lit himself on fire and levitated and sank to his knees as Kardashian watched from a nearby luxury box. That this is all condemned as “jackass-dom,” rather than hailed as one of the few truly original mass cultural events in a time of derivativeness and fragmentation, is a reflection of widespread critical cynicism, and marks a revealing refusal to engage with Donda on its own terms, as a piece of art.
But what do you expect? Donda is the work of a maximally free artist tortured by the fundamental questions of existence, and our culture gatekeepers tend to be too stricken with irony and intolerance to have much of a frame of reference for that sort of thing anymore.
I have a few complaints with Donda, and in the interest of proving I am not a reflexive Kanye apologist I’ll list a few of them. It is far from the best album of the year, nor even the most innovative or ambitious rap album of the year. (That honor goes to Tyler, The Creator’s Call Me if You Get Lost.) Kanye’s religious conversion has turned him into an anti-cursing puritan, and the lack of an explicit version of the record disrespects his featured guest artists, few of whom hot-dogged their contributions, while also aurally vandalizing the end-product. He should not have tacked on the alternate versions of four songs to the end of the canonical track listing that appears on streaming services, a decision that badly undermines Donda’s otherwise excellent sense of pacing and harmony and pushes the runtime by 20 unnecessary minutes (though Kanye alleged that Universal released the album without his permission, so maybe this wasn’t his call). The record should have ended at “No Child Left Behind,” a stunning drone piece that mixes menace and ethereality the way really good doom metal introductions often do.
Kanye’s rapping on “Lord I Need You” verges on the embarrassing. “Off the Grid” is both self-righteous and trend-chasing—Kanye isn’t convincing working in the grimy and hyper-popular drill genre, and the album would have been slimmer and bolder without this stale appeal to present tastes. “Jonah” is indeed as boring as the critics find this entire release to be; “Heaven and Hell” sounds like the squib version of a larger and better song, and it’s not the only track vulnerable to such criticism. Little can be said in defense of “New Again” or “OK OK,” never mind “OK OK pt 2.”
I have reservations even about the parts of the album I liked, and they’re tied to the qualities that make Donda so beguiling, and so impossible for me to dismiss as a failure. “Hurricane” is one of the highlights of the album, and everything until the end of The Weeknd’s long vocal bridge following Lil Baby’s verse is heart-in-your throat pop sublimity—the chorus can’t possibly rise any higher, until West’s Sunday Service Choir blasts it to God-level, up into the giddy stratosphere. The spinal cord is still tingling when West’s verse starts, at which point the song abruptly falls out of the heavens. He goes on for about 30 crucial seconds too long, by which point you might wonder, “is this still the one with The Weeknd on it?”
Drake and Kendrick and even Tyler, the Creator would never have stuck doggerel from a Maltese Minecraft Youtuber directly at the end of a Young Thug feature, but in music and politics and life in general West has always chosen embarrassment over the suppression of his own instincts―it’s basically his defining quality by now. The Lauryn Hill-sampling “Believe What I Say” is the closest thing Donda has to a traditional pop single, but a long spoken-word interlude by Jamaican dancehall legend Buju Banton renders it essentially unplayable on the radio or in a club, venues Kanye used to own but hasn’t even seemed to think about for the past decade. “Jail pt 2” brackets maybe the best verse of DaBaby’s career, one where he shows uncharacteristic versatility in flow, melody, and lyricism, with gut-punch vocals from Marilyn Manson, layered so that Manson’s icy tenor unexpectedly bursts out of the center of the audio mix. But DaBaby’s been cancelled over alleged homophobia, and Manson’s been cancelled over alleged sexual assault, making “Jail pt 2” a bit of a cultural litmus test. I’m both neausated and guiltily exhilarated to think that this is exactly what Kanye wanted it to be, and that he’d gathered unto himself the cancelled in order to force people to reconcile artistic achievement with their own discomfort.
So Donda frustrates even in its finest moments. I suspect this is also intentional, and that West wants us to listen in a state of bafflement. Whether he’s running for president or opining on how slavery was a “choice,” West has made it clear in recent years that he’s too wealthy and popular to care what anyone thinks of him, except for maybe Dave Chapelle. He’s reached a level of liberation that almost no other person in American life is rich enough or beloved enough or brilliant enough to attain, and he isn’t wasting it.
Freedom alone makes West an object of suspicion: He’s too free from anyone else’s rules to be useful to the usual political or social agendas to which one is currently obligated to pledge fealty. West feels no such obligation, having transformed from the sort of guy who would say that Geroge W. Bush doesn’t care about black people during a national telethon into an abortion-hating critic of the Democratic Party who struck up a tactical friendship with Donald Trump as part of his then-wife’s inevitably successful campaign to get people out of prison. West’s albums are guaranteed commercial monsters, and his place in musical history is secure, leaving him free to run his mouth as he pleases. Kanye’s runaway success has also vaulted him in the same creative danger zone Prince found himself in when he opted to produce his own records for the last 20 years of his career, namely the one where he doesn’t need to please anyone’s ears but his own.
But freedom doesn’t equate to happiness, as Kanye knows. Donda is named after West’s late mother, a former English professor who died amid complications of plastic surgery in 2007 and whose voice thunders across the record. One of Donda’s major themes is the discovery that even the ultimate earthly freedom of billions of dollars and limitless creative power can’t immunize you from loss, and that the disappearance of spouses and parents isn’t within Kanye’s or anybody else’s power to reverse.
Donda, in both its aggrandized release strategy and in the album itself, is a stadium-sized plunge into a restless spirit—the bigger the listening party, the louder his mother’s voice echoed alongside Travis Scott’s on “Praise God,” the more poignantly futile his art appeared in bridging the distances in his life, or in life in general. During the final event, at Chicago’s Soldier Field, West stood on the porch of a reconstruction of his childhood home, 60,000 fans gazing at his failure to conquer time and death, eyes and ears trained on a man whose consolation came in inviting tens of millions of people to share the most painful of private griefs.
Increasingly, West’s solace in confronting the impossibility of total fulfillment has come through religion. Jesus is King, West’s last full-length release and an album intended as a straightforward gospel record, had a scattering of transcendent moments and was haunted by a specter of insincerity: Had Kanye undergone a “real” conversion, or had he adopted the trappings of religion out of artistic or psychic or commercial convenience? The religious content in Donda drips with aggression and angst, making West’s reckoning with God feel lived-in, rather than lightly worn. “Guess who’s going to jail tonight?/God’s gonna post my bail tonight,” shouted with heavy reverb between drumless torrents of noise, is a fearful symmetry of fatalism and hope, proclaiming the faith of a knowing sinner and megalomaniac. Kanye’s not playing dress-up here—the religious stuff is more convincing than it’s ever been. But in this day and age, distressingly few critics will entertain the possibility that a hyper-wealthy rap star can yell the words “God is still alive, so I’m free” and really mean it.
In an album dealing with loss and absence, it’s important that the key musical characteristic on Donda is itself an absence. The first drums erupt as a coda to “Jail,” more than five minutes into the album’s runtime; the seven-and-a-half minute stretch between the outro to “Praise God” and the first verse to “Junya” is totally percussion-free. The uniqueness of West’s sound was built atop foundations of lively, heavy percussion. On Donda, it’s basically all gone.
I suspect the vanished drums are part of the reason so many listeners are bored by Donda, and what critics mean when they refer to its tedium and its “unfinished” feel: Our ears are not conditioned to listen to percussion-less hip-hop. It isn’t just the Buju Banton poetry section that makes “Believe What I Say” such an odd song: there’s a submerged bass thump but no snares; the rhythm is there, but the percussion is disconcertingly slippery. It’s like the song dances on top of nothing, its high tempo masking the removal of one of the building-blocks of most of the rap songs we’ve all listened to over the past several decades.
The drumlessness emphasizes Donda’s spiritual themes. A church organ isn’t meant to be played with drums, but as accompaniment to a large chorus of voices—something like the Sunday Service Choir, which pops up to jolting effect a number of times on the record, especially on “24.” The missing drums serve another purpose, though. Kanye determined that it wasn’t enough just to narrate his loss, or to have his mother help narrate it. The music also had to produce an awareness of something not being there and create an anticipation of things that would never happen. Listeners feel the heaviness of the choirs and organs on Donda, while only being granted the emotional release of a heavy downbeat or a satisfying snare kick after long, discomfiting delays. Often that pleasure is denied entirely—on a number of songs the drums just never come, and the music is stuck in an anxious liminal zone. I think Donda is at its best as an expertly curated experience of inner disquiet, but that obviously isn’t going to be everyone’s thing.
In retrospect, those listening parties were a useful priming exercise, a chance for fans to begin grappling with what West might be getting at. At the three preview events the record was played in incomplete form and in radically different order. It felt absurd to compare versions of Donda as if they were Shakespeare quartos, though this became a fun parlor game over Twitter and various group texts. In the last two parties, West slyly subverted the expectations created in the previous versions—at the final one, Jay-Z’s lackluster guest verse on “Jail,” the supposedly estranged superstars’ first collaboration in years, was swapped out for one from the recently cancelled DaBaby, a move that requires the kind of chutzpah that only a half-stable multi-billionaire can buy. It was genuinely innovative to keep changing the album on the fly: Fans had a chance to see an artist tinker with his work in real time, and in a sold-out football stadium no less. Again, this is something Drake hasn’t tried yet, and would probably never even think to try.
One of the biggest surprises in the second listening party was a long monologue from Larry Hoover, Jr. tacked to the end of a posse cut called “Jesus Lord,” featuring Jadakiss, Styles P, Sheek Louch, and the loathsome Jay Electronica, along with Kanye’s best verse on the entire album, maybe the best of his late career. West has long advocated for the release of Larry Hoover, Sr, a convicted murderer and founder of the Gangster Disciples currently serving six consecutive life sentences in Illinois—he raised Hoover’s longshot clemency case with Donald Trump at the White House.
On a first listen, the younger Hoover’s appearance was another Westian excess, a kind of self-congratulation for taking up a cause too morally ambiguous for anyone else to touch. A second time through, during the final listening party, the pained eloquence of Hoover, Jr’s plea suddenly grabbed me: This was a son yearning for his father’s freedom, which is something just about any son would want, regardless of who his father was or what he’d done in an earlier life. On a third listen, shortly after Donda hit Spotify, Hoover’s monologue underwent another transformation for me. Hoover talking about his father was a proxy for Kanye and his mother, but with one critical difference: While decades in an American maximum security prison with a vanishingly thin chance of freedom must be a kind of living death, it still isn’t the real thing, which is irrevocable and irreversible.
Across its long debut, Donda became an unwieldy and uneven pop spectacle about the torment of grief and the sometimes even greater torment of faith, which might be grief’s only real salve. In the runup to maybe his seventh-best album, Kanye has given us something we’ve never seen before, something frustrating and strange, a grand psychic odyssey fraught with artistic risk, blown up to the largest proportions our culture still allows for. When was the last time someone this popular did anything this weird or interesting with such a large number of people paying attention? Who else could assemble NFL grandstands full of fans for a live show who were there to hear only the new stuff? We’d be better off with more Dondas—more batshit album rollouts, more big-ticket artistic intrigue, more death and God-haunted stadium pop that goes its own way.