“DONDA” offers a sense of familiarity in response to the demands for the return of the “Old Kanye.” Unfortunately, it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be.
There should be no limitation to what any artist — or person, for that matter — does creatively, but the question is: should there be constraints when one’s entire identity is the subject of endurance art? Publicly crucified for the VMA incident and resurrected with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,Kanye West came back stronger (no pun intended) with the already-existent chip on his shoulder growing exponentially in the process. What became of Kanye West’s Yeezus era that followed was his commitment as a provocateur. The left-field, electronically-induced production on songs that bore titles like “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead;” declaring himself a God; and the failed attempt to appropriate the Confederate flag for the sake of a poor political statement within high fashion. The past few years have largely been summed up by his alignment with Donald Trump, religious views, and failed presidential candidacy, rather than his musical output (outside of Sunday Service, of course).
In that sense, the beginning of the rollout for DONDA appeared to be the mark of a new era of Kanye; one where his faith in God and a bit of self-awareness finally overlapped with one another. The most refreshing aspect about seeing Kanye West back in album mode was the fact that he had not said a single word. Ye kept a mask on for all three listening parties (no face, no case — word to 2 Chainz). The rapper didn’t embark on a path of self-destruction with public statements or press appearances, even amid a pending divorce from Kim, one that has attracted many headlines. He simply kept everything he had to say — whether controversial or not — on wax, this time around.
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DONDA, Kanye West’s 10th studio album, is one of the many homages made to his mother since her death on November 10, 2007, including a creative agency and a philanthropic arm, Donda’s House. The uncharacteristic silence from Kanye in the weeks leading up to the album’s release seemed as if he was preparing himself for a quest of public redemption through a wholesome tribute to his late mother and reflections of his relationship with God and his family. “Never Abandon Your Family” presented Kanye as the most unguarded we’ve seen him since his mother’s passing. Shiveringly distorted guitars collide against somber synth chords, while Kanye’s warbling auto-tune vocals accentuate the agonizing depiction of a broken home that he’s, in part, also created. Donda’s voice loops as she says, “Is that no matter what, you never abandon your family.” It’s a moment that contextualizes the headlines, weaves in a family mantra, and breaks the picture-perfect depiction of an A-List couple and their four kids, as Kanye repeats his daughter’s plea to stay home. Unfortunately, such a raw and honest moment didn’t make the final album.
As DONDA played out in front of the world stage over the span of three listening parties, the album’s continuous updates paralleled that of his personal life. Coincidentally, “Come To Life” appeared to replace “Never Abandon Your Family” amid rumors that Kanye and Kim were attempting to repair a broken relationship. “Come To Life” — a song where Kanye admits, “I don’t want to die alone” — was commemorated at Soldier Field by Ye’s dramatic combustion and Kim Kardashian’s shocking emergence in a Balenciaga wedding dress before reenacting their wedding vows. The remorse stemming from a broken home became a plea for forgiveness in the album’s final form.
During the prolonged rollout, or perhaps as a result of it, Kanye ended up deviating from the central theme that was presented in July 2020, when he first announced the album. Though Donda’s voice does carry out the project in various ways, the album’s official release reverts back to Kanye’s penchant for trolling (see “Remote Control” inclusion of ââ”The Globglogabgalab”) more frequently than you’d expect in what is supposed to be an homage to his late mother. The undertones of mischievous humor weren’t only found in the often uninspired performances or cringeworthy bars but also in his decision to bring DaBaby and Marilyn Manson on stage in Chicago; then appearing to replace Jay-Z with both of them on “Jail” — an otherwise captivating moment that shares similar anthemic qualities to “Runaway.” Kanye’s uncharacteristic silence in the public eye and the potential quest for redemption were squashed, creating yet another dialogue outside of the music itself. Some might argue that Donda West wouldn’t have agreed with Kanye’s decision to bring out an accused sexual abuser and a condemned homophobe but those same people probably never read Raising Kanye.
With the help of Tony Williams and Sunday Service Choir, the album’s title track is graced with an excerpt of Donda’s “Gwendolyn Brooks Writers’ Conference” speech from her homecoming at Chicago State University in 2007. In her speech, she contextualized raising Kanye West — his brilliance, divisiveness, stubbornness, and dedication. “What do you want me to talk about? Well, he said something that was a little bit dangerous. He told me I could talk about anything I wanted to. And you know, I am my son’s mother,” says Dr. West. However, the moments where Donda’s presence is felt are few and far between. The scarce statements, including the recitation of Gwendolyn Brooks’ Speech to the Young: Speech to the Progress-Toward (Among them Nora and Henry III) on “Praise God” ft. Baby Keem and Travis Scott, are weaved into the records expertly. Kanye’s penchant for sampling vocals — one of his many great attributes as a producer — is used as a tool to honor his mother, in this case.
There’s little room for error for anyone who samples Lauryn Hill’s “Doo-Wop.” And while ‘Ye has a God-given ability to twist, contort, and flip any vocal sample into another stratosphere of sound, the use of the sample on “Believe What I Say” is a traditional take on a timeless record. What Kanye does best is inject it with a bluesy bassline and kick drums that capture the essence of worship music at Sunday Service. The dazzling use of samples on Graduation meets the infectious instrumentation that made his weekly religious gatherings a phenomenon in pop culture.
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Sonically, the project hovers around a pre-TLOP era, though even that project largely felt like a celebration of Kanye’s catalog up until that point. DONDA, too, feels like it was entirely inspired by B-Sides between Graduation and Yeezus era production without going any further than that — at least, when it comes to the rap cuts. “God Breathed,” for example, taps into the acid house minimalism that made Yeezus a polarizing masterpiece.
Kanye’s A&R abilities often make up for whatever he lacks in his own wheelhouse of skills. On Donda, there are plenty of times where Kanye West’s inspiration clearly derives from viral displays of his collaborators’ strengths such as Fivio’s monstrous freestyle on Funk Flex or The LOX’s victory over Dipset at Verzuz.
“Lord Jesus Pt. 2” ft. Jay Electronica and The LOX is the best showcasing of the synchronicity in Kanye’s artistry, politics, and spirituality on the album. The drums kick through celestial organs as a squealing “Jesus Lord” sample rings out every four bars. As Kanye reflects on the loss of his mother and the rippling effect of gun violence, and Jay Electronica makes up for his lack of biblical references, it’s Jadakiss, Styles P, and Sheek Louch who articulate God’s presence in the streets and reinvigorate the spirit of Tupac in preaching the Ghetto Gospel. The cherry on top is Larry Hoover Jr. discussing the fight for his father’s freedom — one of the few consistent points in ‘Ye’s political agenda. It’s one of the many odes to Chicago on the album, along with other mentions of the Gangster Disciples and the Southside.
The LOX’s appearance on “Lord Jesus Pt. 2” is akin to Fivio Foreign’s verse on “Off The Grid” — an integration of Kanye’s roots in Atlanta through Playboi Carti’s sprightly trap sound and the widespread influence that his hometown’s drill scene has across the world. The song is the first of two appearances that Fivio Foreign’s made since his release from prison — an experience that informed both his verse on this record and the aforementioned Funk Flex freestyle days after his release. The sinister trap production transitions to sliding 808s as Fivio Foreign details the tightrope he walks between the streets and the industry, hoping to repent for his sins. It’s moments like this, when The LOX or Fivio Foreign pop out, that Kanye proves that he’s still in tune with the culture, despite the distance he seems to keep from the rap game.
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Ultimately, it’s the new generation that carries most of the weight on DONDA. Fivio Foreign’s ad-lib talents extend to “Ok Ok” which puts on display the talents of Rooga and Shenseea, too. Vory and Kaycyy Pluto’s imprint on songs like “No Child Left Behind” and “Jonah” displayed the strength of their penmanship on the biggest platform of their respective careers thus far. Even Lil Baby, who has done quite well for himself without a Kanye co-sign, continues his hot streak alongside The Weeknd on “Hurricane.” Lil Durk and Roddy Ricch extend their pop sensibilities to elevate the spiritual messages in “Jonah” and “Pure Souls.”
DONDA offers familiarity in response to the demands for the return of the “Old Kanye.” Unfortunately, it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. For years, Kanye has set trends and shattered the boundaries that confined hip-hop. He’s never been one to follow a rulebook, nor acknowledge its existence, which has played to both his detriment and benefit. DONDA doesn’t veer too far off of the path Kanye West created for himself in the span of his 20+ year career. What it does do, however, is bring his religious awakening into a soundscape that’s easily palatable, even to the non-believers. With the assistance of a wide range of producers, songwriters, and features, Jay-Z included, DONDA sounds like the beginning of a return to form, for better or for worse.