Album Review: Kanye West – Donda
Online Music Editor Tom Bosher reviews Kanye’s 10th studio release album, Donda.
After many, many delays, and three performative listening parties, Kanye West has finally released his tenth studio album Donda. He doesn’t leave me much room for a preamble with 27 tracks on the album, so let’s get straight to it.
I was nervous for the release of this album, not just because of the delays and the back and forth of content released and changed, but also because his last album Jesus Is King, left me underwhelmed. So I’m relieved to say this album delivers a lot more, although admittedly he has a lot more chances to do so; with a run time of one hour and 48 minutes, Mr. West is in league with Hollywood films more than albums. There’s plenty of room to go wrong, but plenty of room to go right too.
I’ll be honest, with its size, Donda loses a great deal of coherency. This isn’t necessarily devastating, and I think the notion of listening parties portraying demos of songs on such a large and performative scale as works of progress rather than just delivering the fit and finished product is a pretty revolutionary development. I hope other artists and bands think about following on in relating candidness to listeners, as fans are able to feel a lot more involved in the process of the work.
Scale and “stadium status” is a recurring theme with this album and West wants to take up and use space, with big ascending sounds, heavy drums and massive features. ‘Jail’ is the first hard-hitter on the project with stadium sonics and West sings an exonerated and ethereal anthem, with help from Francis and the Lights, over guitar and synths raw as they come. With a verse from Jay-Z, a reuniting of the Throne culminates in an easy highlight of the album. Despite this marking the start of West’s loose narrative of deterioration in reputation and relationship with his ex-partner Kim Kardashian, ‘Jail’ is a track infused with confidence in pessimism. “I’ll be honest, we all liars” has got to be one of my favourite hooks and lines on the whole album. Kanye is determined to break out of jail, and, by the way, did I say it was with help from God? He mentions that just a couple of times throughout the album…
Kanye has followed through with his claim that all his future albums would be gospel in nature. Whilst all listeners will vary in their attitudes to religion and Christianity, the tonality and words of West’s declarations of faith also vary in effectiveness and overall power. ‘God Breathed’ is close to the ground with gainy vocals and a bloodthirsty bass line throbbing throughout. It’s caged and sparse, slammed with religious intention and a technical minimalist effort that resembles Yeezus and 808s and Heartbreak. Comparisons to other albums of West can often be a fools errand because of his persistence in seeking to transform sonically project to project. However, with Donda it seems as though the lack of envelope-pushing implies a retrospective of his previous work.
Donda feels more like a buffet you can pick and choose from than a curated three course meal
‘Off the Grid’ appears as the first dirty ‘drill’ beat, accompanied and respectively driven by Playboi Carti. The instrumental, although hard hitting at first does just repeat relatively un-creatively. But, it still slaps, and the vocal sample for the chorus is wild. ‘Praise God’ does similarly in the trend of good but not excellent, with an 808 bass underpinning trap/drillish beats. Also, I don’t know if it’s just me but I found Baby Keem exceedingly irritating toward the end. The track ‘Hurricane’ is one that has been reincarnated in various iterations, originally placed on the unreleased project Yandhi. The Weeknd does his Weeknd thing and the little pockets of silence in the synth instrumentals hit hard. The instrumental and structure is polished and crafted, the layers of work are apparent, yet Kanye’s verses do have this lightning-in-a bottle feel, as though he’s free styling on a radio show rather than matching the craft of verses sparse since The Life of Pablo. It’s not necessarily worse or bad, he’s just changed. He’s more casual and nonchalant with a lot of his verses, leaving the real power and sentiment for the hooks and choruses, such as is seen with the infamous “I put my hand on a stove” on ye‘s ‘Ghost Town’.
On ‘Jonah‘ the melody of Rory’s chorus is frankly stunning and helps cement the track as one of the first truly humbling and touching moments on the album. This is matched and arguably superseded on ‘Moon‘, where West shows his usual proficiency in picking perfect collaborators for the track in question. Kid Cudi and Don Toliver shine, well, like the moon, producing a song that reaches poignancy of the likes of Frank Ocean. It’s incredible. ‘24‘ also plucks the heart strings as a fitting feature for the Sunday Service Choir, it’s a tribute to renowned basketball player Kobe Bryant. This song resonates gospel with a soulful and touching sound of optimism despite the contextual sadness.
‘Ok Ok‘ again follows the formula laid so far of what I wouldn’t call filler tracks exactly, but just not spectacular heavy-weight punching tracks. A gloss-glitch synth paired with more 808 bass scores complaints of the music industry and paints rich egos with thorns in their sides. I love the use and attention paid to jail and prison metaphors, but tracks like this just undermine the rest of the album with petty complaints of celebrityism.
‘Believe What I say‘ resurrects me, as Lauryn Hill is sampled from ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’ and it hits me like a massage gun with a sunny beat that bounces and verses from West that feel strong and confident (not often a clarification I have to make with him). With a chorus that slaps plain and simple, the track doesn’t overstep the bounds of tone Lauryn Hill’s original sample sets, Kanye proves he is cheffin’ and choppin’ up beats strong once again. Also his singing on the chorus really does shine.
My confidence in the album is abruptly shot down with the shallowness and confusion of ‘Remote Control‘, that says little more than the Globglogabgalab does at the end of the song. You could argue it’s being playful, but it has virtually no substance sonically or lyrically. It falls flat. I do see it doing well on TikTok though. Speaking of disappointment, ‘Tell the Vision‘ is perhaps the most upsetting track on the album. With piano that wouldn’t sound out of place in Westworld, it promises a drop that could be a drill and trap boy’s wet dream, yet it goes absolutely nowhere. There’s no execution. It sits dead on the water floating like something you’d find in a toilet. I’m not mad, just disappointed. Okay maybe a bit mad. I’m going to finish most of my complaints with ‘New Again‘, a track that’s okay, giving heavy side-chained synth and kick pulsing so hard you feel like you could get whiplash. More evangelical praise is cast, but the presence of domestic abuser Chris Brown does mar the state of the track below averageness. He may want to be new again but he’ll have to do a lot more than feature on a Kanye track to do so, I don’t care how good this or ‘Waves’ was.
‘Heaven and Hell‘ is extremely well-crafted. When the choir and bass comes in midway through, it’s safe to say I ascend.
It’s difficult not to be lifted as it builds up to release an explosion of energy that is maintained such as on ‘Jail’, rather than some other tracks that plateau instrumentally after the first 20 seconds. An album, and maybe all time Kanye favourite for sure.
The title track ‘Donda‘ sees a slowing of pace, and a relatively bare bones sample of West’s mother, Donda West, backed only by piano. Our focus is on the words she says, reminding us that she is her son’s mother, another heart-felt moment, especially for long time Kanye fans.
what Donda lacks in reinvention, it makes up for in sheer volume of colossal sound
Amazing percussion cuts through ‘Keep My Spirit Alive‘ with admittedly more repeated instrumentals but it and the features feel substantial enough that I’m okay with it. It’s a track that you can just feel and vibe to along the way, rather than raising the expectation of a dirty trap beat to dance to. I think Mr. West is ultra keen on ascending because the synths at the beginning of Jesus Lord honestly sound like they were torn right of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Appropriately, West reaches through the stratosphere on this song, with verses from Jay Electronica that are hard-hitting. I did find the repeated ‘Jesus, Lord’ mildly annoying but this track and its part 2 holds so much substance lyrically that its difficult to douse its fire.
Singing toward the end of his verse, I love ‘Lord I Need You‘. It’s frank, honest and personal. Elaborating on his feelings around his relationship with Kim, this is a really solid track with all the usual suspects of his rap, love, ego and wordplay. You’re left laughing and moved. ‘Come To Life‘ hosts piano from Tyler, The Creator that genuinely sounds like it could pulled from Frozen, and I mean that in the best way possible. Paired with synths like lightsabers, there’s a real grace and power to this track that reminds me of MBDTF.
Overall, Kanye West delivers a lot of great, good, and average on this album. What does slightly disappoint me is that I can’t really say that he delivers a lot of new. Breaking ground has been more or less synonymous with his name, both in the sense of his music, its production and many of his other artistic endeavours. Donda, however, doesn’t sound like West has ventured too far to secure undiscovered nuggets of sonic gold to bring back for other artists to copy or be in awe of. The numerous pt. 2’s are example of this, where West makes space on the track listing for extra features and alternate versions, which to me marks more indecision on the end goal of a song, and reduces the ultimate cohesion of the project. The plethora of features also confirms himself as a producer almost more than his own artist as others are close to outweighing him in presence. But, what Donda lacks in reinvention, it makes up for in sheer volume of colossal sound as well as truly substantial features. Donda feels more like a buffet you can pick and choose from than a curated three course meal, a plentiful project from Donda’s boy Kanye, rather than A KANYE WEST JOINT. But you have to respect someone making a feast in a locker room of a stadium.
Favourite Tracks: Jail, Off The Grid, Believe What I Say, Moon, Heaven and Hell, Keep My Spirit Alive, Lord I Need You, Hurricane, Come To Life
Least Favourite Tracks: Remote Control, Tell The Vision