After three listening parties spanning a month and a half, a 24-hour livestream in Mercedes Benz-Stadium showing the tantalizing happenings of a small, converted bedroom, unreleased songs being played randomly on the radio and just an overall lack of transparency on when his album would release, Kanye West finally allowed “Donda” (2021) to hit the airwaves two Sundays ago.
Well, he didn’t technically allow it to drop, according to a now-deleted Instagram post. Universal Music Group, the parent company of the labels that distributed the album — GOOD Music and Def Jam Recordings — allegedly did that without his permission.
Alas, “Donda” remains up.
Though named after his late mother, the album is not a tribute as tracks debuted at listening parties seemed to indicate. Rather, “Donda” is a self-authorized emotional check-up as well as a spiritual successor to “808s & Heartbreak” (2008).
“808s & Heartbreak” was the immediate realization of, among other heartbreaks, his mother’s death, for which Kanye blames himself. The album was the product of shock and trauma. “Donda” is the post-digestion, post-study survey, showing us how Kanye has progressed since his mother’s death. Both are introspective, but the former captured a heart-shattering feeling and turned it into sound. We observed Kanye as he struggled. The latter adds another dimension, as we sit above the operation theater’s stage and West cuts himself open below.
As with any album, the main elements to highlight and critique are structure, theme and sound.
“Donda” is structured in a mostly sensible manner. It kicks off with “Donda Chant” — 52 seconds of “All Falls Down” (2004) collaborator, Syleena Johnson, repeating Kanye’s eponymous mother’s name. We know what album we’re listening to.
The next eight songs all have either dark sounds, dark messages or both. “Jail” finds Kanye and Jay-Z foretelling getting locked up over two differently sounding guitar loops — one anthemic and one menacing. “Off The Grid” starts with a trap beat for an outstandingly squeaky Playboi Carti feature before cleanly transitioning to a dirty drill beat on which Brooklyn rapper Fivio Foreign unleashes a career-best performance. Kanye also spits his best verse since “Kids See Ghosts” (2018) or maybe even “The Life of Pablo” (2016). On “Ok Ok,” Kanye, Lil Yachty and Rooga bemoan those in their lives who have been disloyal or fake over a beat that sounds evil and medieval.
The album mellows over the next four songs, with “Believe What I Say” and “Moon” being two sparkling additions to the pantheon of Kanye’s best tracks.
After the soothing “Moon” comes “Heaven and Hell,” a top-notch track that is brash and harsh — ”Yeezus”-like — but makes no sense being placed where it is. Had it been attached to the first eight songs, the flow would have been seamless. Going from harsh to soothing and then back to harsh again for one song makes for a jarring listen. Making a fuss over only one song’s placement is probably over-analyzing, but this choice slightly weakens the thematic core of the album.
“Heaven and Hell” immediately precedes the title track, “Donda” — two minutes mostly consisting of an old recording of Kanye’s mother talking about her son’s influence on her life.
Every song after “Donda” has a clear spiritual tint. This is clear from some of the titles alone; “Keep My Spirit Alive,” “Jesus Lord” and the track directed to his separated wife Kim Kardashian, “Lord I Need You,” to name a few. Sonically, the remainder of the songs are ethereal and relatively light, further establishing the tonal switch.
The idea here seems to be that “Donda” is a shift in the ethos of our main character, a volta in this hour and forty-eight minute sonnet. Everything before the “Donda” track signifies a man unsaved. Everything after is a man (trying to be) saved.
“Donda” ends with an interpolation of the Lord’s Prayer and Kanye’s mother asking, “What did I teach him?/ And why Kanye ain’t scared?” The connection between Kanye’s mother’s influence, and Kanye’s more serious commitment to Christianity in recent years, is clear.
As for the part twos at the end of the album, they function as remixes and do not add anything to the main narrative. They also include what is easily Kanye’s most offensive track: “Jail pt 2,” in which he features DaBaby and Marilyn Manson — the former having recently spewed homophobic vitriol in a live performance and the latter having recently been accused of multiple instances of domestic and sexual abuse. These two accompanied Kanye at his third listening party, and reports say that Kanye attempted to have former President Donald Trump join as well. Whether this was all done to cause controversy or there was some point trying to be made does not matter; it was in about as poor taste as it gets.
Although Kanye is still clearly imperfect, “Donda” nonetheless shows impressive talent and growth. Consider the mechanical and haunting fieriness of “God Breathed,” the majestic production on “Hurricane” combined with The Weeknd’s sprawling voice, the celestial organ on “Pure Souls” and the sparkling piano mixed with Kanye’s career-best vocal performance on the album-best, penultimate song, “Come to Life.” Whichever sounds have not yet soaked in for listeners will almost surely do so as this album ages, as was the case with “808s & Heartbreak” and “Yeezus” (2013).
Moreover with “Donda,” Kanye refines the sonic representation of his faith, telling a story of a personal journey where his beloved late mother serves as the catalyst for his transformation. The album’s euphoric outro, “No Child Left Behind,” played in the second listening party as Kanye(’s body double) was lifted toward the heavens. As Kanye — an imperfect, flawed human — ascends to the heavens to join his mother, so does this imperfect, flawed, but ultimately magnificent album.