In this review, we take a look at the albums and listening parties that led to the highly anticipated release of Kanye West’s movie-length 10th solo studio album Donda.
The last time Kanye West had a high-profile break-up, he used music as his coping mechanism. In the aftermath of his split up from Amber Rose, and in the wake of his mother Donda’s passing, both almost 14 years ago, he released 808’s & Heartbreak. 808’s became one of the most influential albums in popular music history by normalizing expressions of vulnerability and depression in hip hop, and for using auto-tuned melodies to make critically acclaimed music. Today, the 808’s aesthetic, engineered by a heartbroken Kanye West 13 years ago, is everywhere in pop culture.
Around the time of 808’s release, Kanye openly discussed how he wanted to be a pop artist. He didn’t see this as a negative, and he went as far as to request that Apple (whose music service was only iTunes at the time) label his new album ‘artpop,’ a genre he believed was exclusive to Pink Floyd and himself. The solo albums he released after 808’s (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus) steered back into alternative hip hop territory, but still had a flare of ‘artpop.’ On these albums, Kanye expanded his scope as a songwriter and storyteller and maximized what was possible with production, resulting in two essential albums in the pop music canon. His next albums, The Life of Pablo and ye, while very different from each other, weren’t genre-redefining artistic statements the way his previous albums were. They were also Kanye’s first albums as a husband and father, and naturally, family life became the overarching, but not dominating, theme of both tapes. On The Life of Pablo, Kanye started to loosely incorporate religion as a pillar of his music. But at this point, religion was something he was reckoning with rather than fully embracing. There are lyrics about God and elements of Gospel music throughout, but more than anything else, it’s the opening (and best) song on The Life of Pablo (TLOP), Ultralight Beam, that shines and sets the tone for the entire album. The song opens with a prayer: “We don’t want no devils in this house, God; We want the Lord.” But the music and lyrics that follow reveal how plenty of devils still exist in Kanye’s house, a reality that, honestly, is what creates the fascinating tension on TLOP, and to an extent ye as well.
Following the release of ye in 2018, Kanye’s music became all about his Faith. He realized he could capitalize on his interest in pop culture via other aspects of his career, such as his lucrative partnership with Adidas, while using music as the vehicle to spread his non-secular message. As part of shifting to a missionary musician, Kanye became the leader of the gospel choir known as Sunday Service Choir, and the collective performed standard gospel songs and renditions of Kanye songs on Sundays in LA throughout all of 2019. His work with the Sunday Service Choir culminated in the release of his first Christian Rap album, Jesus Is King, on October 2019. For the first time, his music was free of curses and (most) profanity, and the entire album was based on themes of Christianity, such as faith, worship, sacrifice, salvation, etc. But something felt off, even unconvincing, about the songs on Jesus Is King. The album begged the question: is this just a quick experiment? When will we get real Kanye West music?
With his new album Donda, we get real Kanye West music again. It’s still dressed in church clothes, but this time they fit. Ultimately, Donda is the payoff from his work on Jesus Is King. Jesus Is King was only Kanye’s first stab at Christian music, and since he’s not someone like Lecrae who has been making Christian rap from the onset of his career, it’s unfair to be overly critical of a first try. The music on Donda more than justifies the lackluster and disappointing music on JIK; there would be no vastly-improved Christian rap album from Kanye if he didn’t start somewhere. Artists like Kanye are great artists because they take creative risks, and understand that even if those risks don’t pay off, they are always worth it, in the greater sense. JIK is the perfect example of a risk that wasn’t an artistic success in and of itself, but by spawning Donda, it might be an equally important record in Kanye’s discography. We live in an age of instant gratification, where our immediate access makes us impatient, which makes us resistant to trusting processes, so that we demand everything to be perfect right now. Donda shows the value in trusting the process. (Philadelphia 76’ers’ process aside).
So, Donda. Donda is Kanye’s 10th solo studio album, arriving on Sunday (of course), August 29th, and running at a whopping 1 hour and 48 minutes, or the length of an average movie. The album confirms that God wasn’t merely a subject to temporarily explore through his music, but instead the nucleus that will define a whole era, and potentially the entire future, of Kanye West’s music. Named after his late mother, Donda will be remembered as much for its promotional packed-arena listening parties as it will for the music itself.
The first of three Donda album listening events took place in Mercedes Benz arena in downtown Atlanta, and was simultaneously livestreamed on Apple Music. It took place in the city where Kanye was born, which is a fitting place to promote the album dedicated to his mom. Throughout the first listening event, (calling it a performance would be a stretch), song previews alternate with recordings of his late mother Donda speaking, while a fully-masked dressed-in-all-red Kanye West walks, kneels, jumps and gesticulates around the empty white stage without saying a single word the entire night.
For the second and third listening parties, the events become more performative, and the music moves closer to final. The second event included an entourage of performers and singers dressed in all-black outfits, who formed a wide circle around Kanye’s mock jail cell at center stage, where he was accompanied by a white mattress, free weights, a black jacket, and a few other things. At the end of the performance, he was lifted into the sky, floating towards beaming lights, staging a symbolic return to the Divine path of God. It’s fitting, again, that Kanye’s rebirth would happen in the same city he was born, in tribute to Donda. With the audience as his witness, Kanye physically goes from imprisonment to salvation, with his new music as the soundtrack. The performance reflects one of Donda’s core symbols and metaphors, jail, which he uses to represent life’s conditions before God’s salvation. On Jail, which ends up being the opening track on Donda and features Jay Z, Kanye asks the rhetorical question: “guess who’s going to jail tonight?” before giving a reassured answer: “God gon’ post my bail tonight.”
The third performance was at Soldier’s Field in Chicago, and made headlines for the controversial decision to feature Marilyn Manson (facing rape and sexual assault allegations) and DaBaby (backlash from recent homophobic remarks) by his side during the song that ended up being called Jail pt. 2. Maybe Kanye would argue it was a misguided attempt to symbolize redemption, but it’s hard to see the decision as anything less than disturbing. There was plenty more to the performance that night, such as Kanye and Kim reenacting their wedding and Kanye burning alive, but everything was overshadowed by the insensitivity to include those particular guests on Jail pt. 2.
When Donda finally came out, those who watched his performances had already heard the core of the music on the album, albeit in different orders and inconsistent versions. But the general response to the music pre-album release had been positive, which translated to huge anticipation. Did the final version of the album live up the hype? It depends who you ask of course, but our answer is yes, definitely. It’s annoyingly long at almost 2 hours, and while there’s fat that could have been cut… there’s not that much fat. Although there is a musical and tonal split halfway through the album, which rewards ordered listening, there’s not a clear track-by-track narrative. For that reason, and because of the near two-hour duration, it’s beneficial to think of Donda more like a jukebox of new Kanye music rather than one of his typical albums. A jukebox of new Kanye Christian music, to be specific. It’s like he got so excited about finally making good Christian music that he needed to share all of it, imploring us to drown in Donda so that we forget Jesus Is King.
The sprawling 27-song tracklist is packed with vintage Kanye lyrics, production, and swagger, but it’s the army of guest features that are more notable than anything Kanye does himself. There are about 50 feature appearances across the 27 songs, which means there are almost 2 guests per song on average. Kanye’s always recruited a lot of artists to join his albums, and he’s worked with his GOOD Music label mates on plenty of group projects in the past. But never has he made a studio album like Donda, where he embraces the role of coordinator and super-producer like this. There’s a refreshing aspect of getting less Kanye here, and also a thematic one. By having a community-focused album rather than a Kanye-centric one, the themes of faith, religion, and salvation take on a greater and more far-reaching meaning. His message is a lot more captivating and impactful when it extends beyond the artist himself.
While parts of the album might become forgettable, there are enough tantalizing melodies and moments that will keep listeners coming back. It’s that telepathic frequency that only artists like Kanye can trigger, and there’s no explanation for why it resonates so strongly. But his music does, and it has for a very long time. That’s probably the most interesting part of it all. And put in proper context it’s even more remarkable: Kanye’s nearly two-decade run means he has stayed relevant for longer than any other hip hop artist in history. After Jesus Is King, that run was in jeopardy, but Donda nips that notion in the bud. Even before Donda there was an argument to be made he’s the most consistently great musical artist of all time.
Tying this back to 808’s, keep in mind this is a post-breakup Kanye West album. While he uses his music as a coping mechanism again on Donda, it’s very different this time around. Earlier this year, Kim Kardashian filed for divorce from the artist she shares four children with. Kanye discusses the pain he’s going through in the wake of the divorce many times on Donda, but overall the album’s mood ascends to optimism in the second half, as drums, samples, and synths give way to church organs, and he strikes uplifting tones through lyrics and melodies. The whole album builds up to the last couple of songs, Come to Life and No Child Left Behind which both define and resolve the music on Donda. On the closing track No Child Left Behind, Kanye is ultimately grateful, exalting “He’s done miracles on me” repeatedly. Unlike 808’s, which was an album centered around grief, loss, and pain, DONDA is an earnest statement from a man whose faith in God has made him, at least on the surface, resilient in the face of hardship.