By Aryav D. ’23
“Donda. Donda. Doooooonda. Dooonda. Donda,” chants past collaborator Syleene Johnson to the (heart)beat of Kanye West’s late mother, Donda West, as she passed away on her deathbed. Whether or not he likes it, Donda is here, a gargantuan, meditative, but sometimes impersonal effort that never fails to remain quintessential Ye, for better or for worse.
As always with Kanye, religious iconography is abound, but perhaps more here than in his earlier records; Donda comes hot off the tracks of 2019’s divisive Jesus is King, a record that saw Kanye respond to the media circus surrounding him with a bold, but incohesive gospel direction. Where Jesus is King was a gospel album with rap elements, Donda is a rap album with gospel elements. Here, West’s religious lyrics feel more in line with his musical style and much less out-of-left-field than what we got on Jesus is King.
But at its worst, Donda sometimes feels like, rather ironically for an album named after and in tribute to his deceased mother, an album with Kanye in the background, as some features go so far as to dominate their respective tracks. These many guest appearances fill up a near two-hour runtime, a creative choice that feels almost jarring coming after two of Kanye’s shortest albums to date with Ye and Jesus is King. Mileages vary with the choice of features on Donda; West’s music has always evolved with the times, making his sound difficult to put in a box. He’s also been known to tap talent based on the state of the rap industry, but certain spots on Donda beg the question of if said industry has drifted so far from Ye’s musical style that it’s left him behind. Roddy Ricch, for one, sticks out like a sore thumb on “Pure Souls,” and with Playboi Carti’s presence, “Off the Grid” plays less like a Kanye track than something we’d find on Die Lit. Moments like these can make West feel like a feature on his own record.
Nevertheless, all of the production on Donda reminds us who’s in charge here. It yearns for some of the minimalism of Yeezus and is often saturated by the moody synths that defined 808s and Heartbreak. West’s choice of samples also remains catchy as ever. His long-professed love of Lauryn Hill’s music leads to one of the album’s brightest spots on “Believe What I Say,” and an addictive, pitched-up, sinister J. Lo sample kicks off the bar-heavy “Heaven and Hell,” a punchy stand-out track that crescendos to an operatic, sprawling finish.
Some classically goofy Kanye bars open up “New Again” before pulsing, bouncy synths reinvigorate one of the few Ye-focused tracks on the album. The song isn’t without another bold, if questionable, move from Kanye, using a Chris Brown feature (hilariously cut from the album a month later after public ire from Brown on the usage of only part of what he recorded as opposed to the whole thing) that situates itself among a few other problematic guest spots on the album. Marilyn Manson and DaBaby, both incredibly controversial public figures, pop up on “Jail Pt. 2,” one of a couple of indecisive double-downs tacked on to the album by West. Clearly playing with fire with these flashy, tasteless choices, the track most logically reads like a treatise on cancel culture, but was, strangely enough, written before DaBaby’s homophobic comments were made. “Jail” throbs with bass-heavy power chords, but is ultimately thrust forward with some tranquil crooning from Ye. Jay-Z’s verse on the first iteration of the track marks one of the album’s strongest, his flow commanding the instrumentation and lyrics topically addressing some of West’s more contentious recent antics (“Told him stop all of that red cap, we going home”). “Hurricane” revamps an old cut off of the mythic, unreleased Yandhi, giving the spotlight up to Lil Baby and The Weeknd to mixed results.
On the other hand, the album’s more understated moments are where it feels the most personal. The title track, “Donda,” does more with less, using a speech from Donda West and some simple, powerful instrumentation to make for a touching monument to West’s mother. The gospel-tinged “Jesus Lord” earns its runtime with some sentimental, but occasionally profound bars from West and a Jay Electronica feature that harkens back to his appearance on (the notably absent) Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book. Leaked rather ironically by Drake a few weeks after the album’s release was the scrapped “Life of the Party,” which features the rare unicorn sighting of an Andre 3000 verse that, along with West’s work on the song, would have made for one of the album’s most powerful tributes to Donda West.
But despite some occasional missteps, throughout Donda, one thing is made mostly clear: rather than let his features outshine him, Kanye West still tries his hardest to wear the same collar-popping panache that has characterized his music since the start. With inventive, varied production, deliberately picked, if questionable, guest appearances, and a total, overwhelming desire to provoke, it seems he’s doing a fine job holding on.