Kanye West’s 10th album arrives barely finished and with a lot of baggage. Its 27 tracks include euphoric highs that lack connective tissue, a data dump of songs searching for a higher calling.
Contending with Kanye used to be so thrilling. There was sport in watching a rapper go toe-to-toe with their own ego the way he did, all in service of passionate pop music that lived on the knife-edge of spectacle and solipsism. He was a tightrope walker in shutter shades and Louis Vuitton stockings.
Now, something has dulled in his kingdom and the thrill of watching man vs. art has turned into a rote acceptance of Kanye and his stadium-sized album release events, shelved projects, billion-dollar sneaker empire, public grappling with bipolar disorder, devotion to Christianity and non-secular music, MAGA tryst with former President Donald Trump, and presidential run of his own. The subordinate clauses that are now required to contextualize the artist himself loom large over everything he does. The music of Kanye who once said 400 years of slavery was a choice, who once tweeted that Bill Cosby was innocent, who revolutionized rap and has not made a truly great album in five years—sounds like an afterthought, some extra sounds to have as a treat.
Donda, his 10th studio album, named after his late mother Dr. Donda C. West, came to life across three listening events held in two of the biggest stadiums in the country. Thousands of people in-person and millions more online watched as songs about God, family, divorce, and “throat coat for the throat GOATs” blasted through speakers while a masked Kanye did push-ups and frolicked with DaBaby, who recently spouted homophobic remarks, and Marilyn Manson, who is currently facing multiple lawsuits for sexual assault.
Each session felt like market-testing disguised as performance art, and was somehow worse than both 2016’s Life of Pablo event at Madison Square Garden and his infamous Jackson Hole gathering for ye. Like any album put on to streaming services without the artist’s approval, Donda arrived barely finished and with a lot of baggage. Its 1 hour and 48-minute runtime includes euphoric highs that lack connective tissue, a data dump of songs searching for a higher calling.
On the surface, the themes Kanye’s ready to explore are obvious: the ways in which his mother and his faith have molded him. Christianity has played a role in his music since at least “Jesus Walks,” but now it seems to fuel every aspect of his creativity.
Pablo’s concept was built around his attempt to connect Paul the Apostle to drug kingpin Pablo Escobar to revolutionary artist Pablo Picasso. He founded the Sunday Service Choir in 2019 and re-recorded clean versions of his classic songs. Shortly after, West declared that he would stop cursing in his music altogether, which might explain why the clean version of Donda is the only one currently available to stream. It’s easy to be evangelical when you’re selective about what parts of a religion to follow.
On Donda, West’s relationship with God does push him in a slightly more thoughtful direction. The closing verse on “Off the Grid” homes in on the Tao of Kanye by laying out his religious mission statement: “I ain’t delivering heavenly messages just for the hell of it/Don’t try to test me; I keep it clean, but it can get messy.” The opening verse on “Jesus Lord” is the most focused and raw Kanye’s been in years, a swirling mass of pent-up anxiety, drug addiction, and memories of his mother. There are lines about talking to, finding power in, relying on, and needing only God—which make moments like Kanye asking a hookup to text him “heyyyyy with a bunch of y’s” and sneaky odes to getting head curdle under the somber, youth pastor vibe around it. Outbursts about delayed croissants and references to The Waterboy on Yeezus were low comedy inside high art. With all the listlessness and confusion happening on Donda, Kanye’s infamous joke bars land with a thud. An inherent flaw to beta testing your album in full public view is that everyone becomes a tiny little executive producer, each with their own thoughts on sequencing, versions, features. Here’s my piece: Apart from the title track missing its somber verse from G.O.O.D. Music President Pusha T, Donda herself is missing from a good chunk of this album. The first two iterations of Donda featured more vocal clips of Kanye’s mother, a guiding light and platonic ideal for he and his guests to strive for.
Donda standouts like the soulful “Jonah” or the soaring “Pure Souls” work .