Chaotic preview events for Kanye West’s 10th studio album Donda have dominated social media feeds in recent weeks, each one promising a release date that never materialised. The coverage of the events has focused on Kim Kardashian dressed as a Balenciaga-clad sleep paralysis demon, $50 chicken tenders, potential Drake disses, levitation and cameos from alleged rapist Marilyn Manson and the homophobic DaBaby. Fans called West a genius capable of creating exciting theatre that evolves in real time; others saw him as an empty provocateur. Much like kindred spirit Donald Trump, West seems to instinctively know how to weaponise controversy to drive interest in a new project.
With the eventual release of Donda (named after West’s English professor mother, who died in 2007), there is a nagging sense the spectacle has overshadowed the actual music, with this bloated 108-minute album rarely sure of what it is trying to say. The intro, Donda Chant, a sequence of eerie recitations of his mother’s name seemingly designed to send you into a sunken place, is arresting, giving you the impression you’re about to undergo an immersive religious experience. But too often the songs that follow are built on half-baked ideas from a West more concerned with self-pity and martyrdom than confronting his contradictions.
Over the slightly flat dad-rock riffs of Jail, West is reunited with his Watch the Throne partner Jay-Z, who boasts that he convinced his longtime foil to give up the red Maga cap. But the song’s melody meanders and West’s lyrics feel blunted. In the past, he had sharp punchlines – “Face it, Jerome get more time than Brandon” he rapped in 2010, deftly highlighting racial inequality in the US justice system while also getting a laugh for using racial stereotypes to do so. Here, he lethargically repeats the question “guess who’s going to jail?” without ever really landing on what he’s implying; it could easily be read as a moan about cancel culture.
He does the same thing on God Breathed, a trap anthem to prosperity (“I don’t care about the lawyer fees … God will solve it all for me”) that marries Christian transcendence with the rush of a rave. West repeats “I know God breathed on this” like he’s running through potential $350 T-shirt slogans with his marketing manager. Like a lot of West’s post-Life of Pablo work, these songs feel stitched together and rushed.
Hearing this billionaire wallow in self-pity (“Everything that you do good, it just go unnoticed,” West complains on Jesus Lord) or claim he’s anti-commercial (on Keep My Spirit Alive) reveals his lack of self-awareness, and means the big emotional moments – such as pondering whether death will finally reunite him with his mother; or buckling under the strain of divorce (“Cussin at your baby mama / guess that’s why they call it custody”) – don’t fully connect. West is lacking in the things that once made him so compelling as a songwriter: self-deprecation (“I ordered the jerk / She said: ‘You are what you eat’” went a wry line on 2010’s gorgeous Devil in a New Dress), and a sense of humour to cut through moments of tension (2005’s Roses disrupts a deathbed vigil with auntie jokes, for instance). The atmosphere here is solemn – aside from the odd dad joke here and there: “Some say Adam could never be black / ’Cause a black man a never share his rib”.
One undeniably excellent moment is Believe What I Say, which utilises Lauryn Hill’s healing coos from her classic Doo-Wop (That Thing) for a more uptempo soul song, on which West reminds himself not to be dragged down by fame. It’s the record’s most restorative moment, just like Ghost Town was amid an otherwise uneven Ye (2018). Meanwhile Hurricane, which features Lil Baby and the Weeknd, contains a massive hook from the latter that projects walk-on-water confidence. “There’s a lot to digest when your life is always moving,” West spits, reflecting on progressing from school dropout to guest speaker at Yale. On this track, he feels more like a human being and less like someone delivering the doctrine of a corporate superchurch. Similarly, Lord I Need You has intimate details of his collapsing marriage and is an affecting moment of frailty, even if a memory of “we used to do the freak seven days a week” has him sounding like Jim’s dad in American Pie.
The harsh fact is that the best verses on Donda don’t come from Kanye. Brooklyn drill rapper Fivio Foreign lights up the stirring Off the Grid with lyrical grenades about his face tattoos being a marker of truth. Baby Keem mixes worship with the dark carnality of the mosh pit with his schizophrenic, Auto-Tune-driven verse on Praise God. Jay Electronica knits Aztecs, Ottomans, the Nation of Islam, Wakanda, Thelonious Monk and modern imperialism into a cryptic worldview on Jesus Lord, while surrealist thug Westside Gunn floats over Keep My Spirit Alive with raps about flushing cocaine down the toilet as cops encircle. Chicago’s drill bluesman Lil Durk talks about the recent murder of his brother on Jonah, powerfully referencing a niece and nephew now without a father. West clearly inspires frank admissions from all of the featured artists on Donda, who treat him like a priest they’ve visited for a group therapy session.
It’s disappointing that West is unable to match their clarity of thought. He coasts by with gospel fragments that don’t really go anywhere, something particularly evident on Come to Life, with a piano line that pulls the heartstrings in the manner of a cancer charity TV commercial. It’s hard to tell a billionaire what to do, and the lack of a self-edit means Donda often sags. A record that is a tribute to a powerful Black woman also lacks much female perspective, beyond old audio clips of speeches by Donda West and an eventual strong guest spot from Shenseea on OK OK Pt 2.
On his 2004 studio debut, The College Dropout, West was, at times, an anti-consumerist who joked about our obsession with material things and brand affinity. Years later, he’s come full circle, a venture capitalist trying to talk to God through gold ceilings. On most of his albums he has used a brain trust of guest stars to have a conversation with contemporary culture, but he was never outclassed by them as he is here. At the heart of Donda’s crowdsourced music is a diminished figure, one at odds with the witty rulebreaker of the past.