A theatrical recreation of West’s childhood home sets the stage for the listening event at Soldier Field

Sunday, August 29th was an otherwise quiet and mundane morning, until producer and performer Kanye West awoke from his months-long hibernation to release his highly anticipated 10th project, Donda. The album initially had a planned release date of summer 2020, but underwent several delays and revisions leading up to its final release. West held three separate listening parties prior to the final rollout, held at multiple attractive venues including the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and Soldier Field Stadium in Chicago. With each event, West tweaked the album slightly, adding touch-ups and polishing details to the final project. Now, with the final rendition of Donda available for all to hear, many are left questioning if this is truly what they’ve been waiting for.

West’s music has historically come from a place of creativity and expression. Prior critically acclaimed works of his, such as 808s and Heartbreak and The Life of Pablo, were inspired by personal hardships. With Donda, West laments his late mother, who passed away in 2007 due to postoperative complications. Dealing with his mother’s passing has been a key factor in West’s character and creative arcs, and has affected his mental health over the years. Now, after spending much of his recent years in the mountains of Wyoming, West has seemingly found new faith and the strength to move forward. 

Even by West’s standards, the project seems to push new boundaries for religious undertones. His music has always stayed true to his faith, dating back to his debut project. Songs like Jesus Walks set the precedent for the symbolism that would continue to manifest in West’s future discography. Since his retreat in Wyoming, West’s projection on social media and interviews seems to have become even more intertwined with God, and this newfound spirituality reflects itself in the music. 

Donda is rife with Christian allegories and feels almost gospel-like in its recurring chants and hymns. West enlists the help of the Sunday Service Choir that he assembled in 2019 to deliver rich, choral interludes throughout the album. On No Child Left Behind, dreamlike pipe organs set the scene for the track as West and featured artist Vory express their shared appreciation for God’s miracles. 

“When the No Child Left Behind snippet came out, I was evangelical for a solid 30 seconds I think. And Jesus Walks is really good, but I don’t think they helped me find God.” said Aekta Kallepalli, a student at Carrboro High School and attendee of one of Donda’s listening events. “I think that at this point, God would have to find me. I’m in a life stage where there is no conversion that can happen.”

These ethereal moments are then short-lived before being quickly juxtaposed with the classic braggadocious rants West is well known for, with some verses feeling more like a track from Yeezus. His verse on Believe What I Say spirals down tangents of his characteristic rants on Twitter and his escapades with promiscuous women. Moments like these blur the lines between pious sermons and sleazy tirades, and make it difficult to discern what West’s true preachings are. 

Donda is a 27 track project, spanning almost two hours in its entirety. Creating an album of such length while still remaining cohesive is already a difficult task, and this becomes a much greater challenge when the creative direction feels like it wants to go in multiple different directions. The arrangement of the tracklist feels as if it was spliced together at the last minute, with no real transitions or fluidity between tracks.

The highlights of the album are snuffed out by frequent and obvious filler tracks, most of which feel like experimental throwaways rather than songs created for Donda. Gone are the days of Yeezus and 808s and Heartbreak, when West stuck to his guns and created short but sweet projects that conformed to a specific theme or interest.

“It’s not gonna be another Yeezus.. I feel like within his discography it’s just mid, I guess,” Aekta Kallepalli said.

When not being used to sprinkle the album with filler, the main attractions of Donda are the features. West called upon a handful of popular artists to assist in the creation of the album, including Lil Baby, Playboi Carti, and Jay-Z. Most of the guest appearances feel fitting and deliberate, and shine through on the highlight tracks. On Off the Grid, New York rapper Fivio Foreign delivers a sermon about the difficulties of the music industry and his strength through faith, as Atlanta prodigy Playboi Carti supports with his signature harsh and energetic adlibs. A vast majority of the featured artists on Donda were not even recognizable names when West started on his path to fame, and it’s a breath of fresh air to see new stars given credit from a household name such as Kanye. 

Featured artists DaBaby and Marilyn Manson are seen performing alongside West at one of the listening events

Despite the many strong performances from featured artists, several of the names West chose to feature on his 10th project raised an atmosphere of controversy for many listeners. The track Jail pt 2 sees background vocals from Marilyn Manson, who had recently been facing several lawsuits concerning the alleged assault and abuse of an ex-girlfriend, as well as a verse from rapper DaBaby, who was recently under heavy fire on social media for making a set of homophobic remarks at his Rolling Loud performance.

West gave Chris Brown–the R&B singer who brutally abused his former girlfriend, the singer and actress Rihanna–a spot on the song New Again, however his feature was cut from the final project after a series of revisions that were made post-release. Manson and DaBaby remain on the album, even after revisions. The inclusion of these artists on Donda feels forced, as if the intention was to be some sort of performance art or societal commentary. 

“Music wise, I didn’t feel like DaBaby or Marilyn Manson’s features really added anything. They were just kinda there, for me,” Kallepalli said. “Should he have done them? I feel like he’s at a point where it doesn’t matter. Like, he doesn’t need to care if DaBaby said something homophobic at Rolling Loud.”

For a 10th studio project surrounded by this much anticipation, Donda cannot hide from its shortcomings. West has always been the king of media presence, and understands that he will stay relevant no matter what direction he branches off towards. This mindset has clearly influenced West’s creative decisions throughout all of his career, but truly bares its teeth on Donda.

The album is littered with filler tracks and controversial guest appearances, suffered repeated delays and rescheduling, and can’t quite seem to close its grasp around what exactly it wants to say. Nonetheless, in light of all its flaws, this project will certainly not be forgotten anytime soon. The highlights of the album are incredibly standout tracks, and serve as reminders for what West’s true potential is as an artist.

Even after nearly two decades of making music, he manages to show that the creative spark is still there. If anything, this album is a characteristic demonstration of West’s artistic process— erratic, spontaneous, and self-directed. Kanye West no longer cares about the opinions of the peanut gallery. He makes music for himself, and Donda is the perfect example.

About Ian Lim