Music in Review: Donda

Matthew Drewry, features editor

Kanye West needs no introduction. Genius sometimes, raconteur always, West’s music has been consistently ahead of the curve in his 25-year career as a rapper and producer, netting him 22 Grammy awards. Regardless of how you feel about him, I can nearly guarantee you have some opinion about Kanye Omari West, who recently filed to change his name to “Ye”.
Ye’s most recent album “Donda” is named after his late mother, a University of Chicago English professor. Donda West passed away due to surgery complications made possible by her son’s financial success, leading to Kanye’s despondent 2008 work “808’s and Heartbreaks”.
As his first full length release since 2016’s “The Life of Pablo”, “Donda” comes at an odd time in Kanye’s life. Between his born-again conversion to Christianity, endorsement of Donald Trump, his own presidential campaign, and now his recent separation from Kim Kardashian (West?) Kanye has been anything but stagnant, and it reflects in the sonic and lyrical content of “Donda”.
The biggest example of this is the release schedule of the album. Kanye debuted three distinctly different live shows, track listings, features and visuals before releasing the album a seemingly unplanned (and according to his social media, unapproved) Sunday.
It is in this overly casual production the flaws of the album are rooted. This is especially visible in the tracklist seeming thrown together and a multitude of “part 2” tracks that seem better suited to a deluxe edition. These flaws account for a 1 hour 48 minute runtime that is fairly tiring to listen to in one sitting, even for a hardcore fan such as myself.
These flaws detract from the album as an entire work, but the individual tracks are something else entirely. Kanye sounds as sharp as ever lyrically, with otherworldly production star studded with guests that only Kanye could bring to a record. Most notably, the reunion of Kanye and Jay-Z after schism brought about by Kanye’s controversial Trump endorsement. Besides this blockbuster pairing not seen in nearly a decade, a full cast of Kanye collaborators both past and present are featured across the album. Highlights include beats or features from Jay Electronica, Playboi Carti, Mike Dean, The Weeknd, Kid Cudi, Lil Yachty, Conway the Machine and Westside Gunn of Griselda, Swizz Beats and Roddy Ricch.
The most prominent themes across the album are the elements of redemption, God, and Jesus, but in a more nuanced fashion than the preceding “Jesus is King”. One of the ways Kanye goes about this theme is by featuring “canceled” artists on the album, in the forms of Chris Brown, DaBaby, and Marilyn Manson–for better or worse. This is in addition to an extensive spoken word monologue by Larry Hoover Jr., bemoaning his father’s incarceration. Larry Hoover Sr. is serving six consecutive life sentences for gang activity and ordering a murder. While I will not cast aspersions towards these individuals or their accusers, it’s fairly unsightly, relative to the musical or thematic benefit they add to the album. But obviously, Kanye is as Kanye does at this point. As far as the Christian themes themselves, they are sometimes front and center, such as “Jesus Lord” or “Praise God”, or fairly buried such as on “Off the Grid”. Overall, I find Kanye struck a better balance between his Christian faith while still catering to secular listeners on Donda.
As a total work, I find the high points of “Donda” dizzyingly high and on par with any music Kanye has previously released. In totality, “Hurricane”, “24”, “Moon”, “Jail”, and “Junya” are standout tracks that demonstrate huge stylistic growth from Kanye.
Features from Jay Electronica on “Jesus Lord”, Young Thug on “Remote Control”, Lil Baby on “Hurricane” and Baby Keem on “Praise God” are all standout performances from the artists and for Kanye’s catalog as a whole.
Beats like “Believe What I Say”, “New Again”, and “Praise God” are all on par with the best production of any Kanye album, artfully blending both original Kanye elements with new themes and styles.
The lowlights are not unforgivable but, most frustratingly, seem obvious and low hanging. “Tell The Vision” is an unnecessary, standalone Pop Smoke feature that is completely jarring in the tracklist and sounds like it was recorded on a phone.
The omission of several spoken word parts from Donda West featured in the earlier listenings are disappointing and leave the remaining spoken word elements confusing and unexplained. Speaking of confusion, the entire album is edited of profanity despite several verses being significantly and distractingly altered. While I understand Kanye’s opposition to profanity, the removal of it seems pointless relative to just releasing an explicit and edited album. This also circles back to the tracklisting issue; this album could have easily been a double album, with the downtempo tracks on one side and the hype tracks on the other, and I really can’t see a reason why it shouldn’t have been, with the exception of it being rushed to market.
These complaints aside, I am glad Mr. West is back (and might be getting back together with Kim Kardashian). He is simply far too unique and talented of a figure to not be present in the hip hop scene. I rate “Donda” 4 out of 5 stars in its current iteration, and 4.5 of 5 with a tweaked tracklist.