DONDA (Album Review)


411 days after its initial announcement, DONDA, the tenth full-length studio album by rapper Kanye West, was released early Sunday morning. The album’s title stems from West’s mother Donda West, who passed away in 2007 as a result of complications from surgery. West was extremely close with his mother, even after he began his multi-million dollar music career. As he told Q Magazine in 2015: “My mother was my everything. If I had never moved to LA, she’d be alive. I don’t want to go far into it because it will bring me to tears”. In this way, DONDA functions as a loose concept album centering over West’s grief and eventual acceptance of his mother’s death. To drive the concept home, the album samples various speeches made by Donda when she was a professor – which function as interludes, but also vaults of wisdom from a woman we previously only knew as “Kanye’s Mom”.

Of course, it would be impossible to talk about DONDA without mentioning West’s pre-release antics, which included becoming a tenant of the 71,000 seat Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, self-immolating inside a replica of his childhood home, and, most curiously, remarrying ex-wife Kim Kardashian.

The album begins with “Donda Chant”, a spoken word introduction, before segueing into the main opener “Jail”, featuring Jay-Z. Jay’s verse carries significant meaning, even if his flow is subpar and delivery occasionally ham-fisted – the two rappers previously collaborated on the 2011 full-length Watch the Throne, however began a feud shortly after that would last half a decade. The verse references Jay-Z’s disdain for West’s political beliefs – “Told him to stop all that red cap / We goin’ home”, as well as teases a potential Watch the Throne 2 – “This might be the return of the throne / Hova and Yeezus / Like Moses and Jesus”.  

“Hurricane” featuring The Weeknd and Lil Baby is a standout track – it’s no wonder this was going to be the album’s lead single (a plan later scrapped). From the neon synths to the gospel choir accentuations on The Weeknd’s already beautiful voice, an addictive and impactful chorus is created which develops throughout the track. This is the type of song you’d play on a late night drive through a large city feeling like the only one alive. Its degree of emotional prowess is unmatched.

Praise God opens with the album’s first Donda sample – “Even if you are not ready for the day, it cannot always be night”. It’s at this point a certain idiosyncratic detail becomes apparent – the album is censored. It’s most noticeable when the audio clips for a few seconds in the middle of a guest artist’s verse. If the plan was for the album to be censored as part of its basis on faith and West’s newfound “aversion to profanity”, it begs the question: why were explicit verses cleared in the first place? 

“Junya” is a concise modern trap track which name checks Japanese fashion designer Junya Watanabe. West’s verse contains one of the most direct confrontations with his grief on the first half of the album – “This on Donda / On my Mama / Made a promise”. “Believe What I Say” is a club anthem with a classic Kanye twist – if you told me it was ripped straight from 2007’s Graduation, I wouldn’t have questioned it. As an added bonus, the track includes a surprise feature from enigmatic R&B legend Ms. Lauryn Hill. The combination of Hill’s thought provoking lyricism with West’s radiating zeal has the potential to bring entire stadiums to their feet – that is, if West ever decides to embark on another tour.

Curiously, the Kid Cudi (another rapper whom West previously collaborated longform with) verse on “Remote Control”, present in prior listening events, was scrapped on the final album in favor of a sample from “The Globglogabgalab”, a character from 2012’s universally panned short film Strawinsky and the Mysterious House. It works about as well as it sounds. But if Remote Control is the album’s most questionable track, then the follow-up “Moon” is its most beautiful. The marvel is that it finds grandeur in simplicity – the sparse instrumentation, outright lack of drums, and wistful hook by Don Toliver – “I wanna go to the Moon / Don’t leave so soon / How can I keep going?” Kid Cudi’s verse remains intact on this track – how can you have a track called “Moon” without the Man on the Moon featured on it?

The album’s title track is heart-rending – it not only functions as a eulogy to West’s late mother, but also to his past self. This sets up the album’s latter half narrative of moving on, new beginnings, and finding our true purpose. “Jesus Lord” contains an excerpt of a speech by Larry Hoover Jr. talking about his father, Larry Hoover Sr., the former leader and founder of street gang Gangster Disciples in West’s hometown of Chicago. Hoover Sr. has been sentenced to six life sentences for murder, conspiracy, extortion, money laundering, and continuing criminal enterprise. Since 1973, he has been serving his sentence at ADX Florence, the highest security Federal prison in America. In his speech, Hoover Jr. thanks West for taking his father’s case to the Oval Office. In October of 2018, Kanye visited former President Donald Trump and pleaded for clemency for Hoover Sr., an attempt ultimately unsuccessful, but not the least forgotten as a show of compassion from the most misunderstood man in hip-hop.

“Tell the Vision” is a solo piano track with a posthumous feature from drill artist Pop Smoke – it could have and should have been cut; all it does is interrupt the narrative’s flow. A better choice for its spot would have been “Never Abandon Your Family”, a more dispiriting track, which was present during the first listening party but ultimately left off in the wake of West’s seeming reunion with Kardashian. While it’s fine that West no longer identifies with this track, many of us can relate to losing the ones we love due to mistakes we’ve made. It certainly carries more weight than the out of place track we got.

Regardless, “Pure Souls” is a solid cut – the Roddy Ricch feature adds a lot to the track, even if the piano present in earlier versions ended up being cut. “No Child Left Behind” was the first track we heard publicly off the album – it was featured in advertisements alongside controversial track athlete Sha’Carri Richardson. It’s a wonderful, meaningful closer, simultaneously combining the best and worst of West in an unashamed ode to sinning and forgiveness. 

Or it should be, but West decided to include 4 unheard tracks on the album’s end – reprises of its prior highs. They’re fine tracks to be sure, but unneeded – they already exist in some form on the album and only serve to stretch its verbose runtime. “Jail, Part 2” (featuring controversial artists DaBaby and Marilyn Manson) does an especially good job at ruining the meaning of its predecessor. As for the rest, “Ok Ok, Part 2” and “Junya, Part 2” should have been relegated to deluxe edition tracks at best, or cut entirely at worst. “Jesus Lord, Part 2”, is the only one worth a second look, and should have replaced the album version, which sounds like a radio edit in comparison.

Despite its length and a number of odd conceptual choices, DONDA soars as a thematic journey, mixing polarizing darkness and captivating light. It certainly shines as West’s opus, however with a few edits, it could be a masterpiece. For now, let’s tell the Devil good night and go to sleep, for Ye’s done another miracle on us. 

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Favorite Tracks: “Hurricane”, “Junya”, “Believe What I Say”, “Moon”, “Jesus Lord”, “No Child Left Behind”

Least Favorite Tracks: “Remote Control”, “New Again”, “Tell The Vision”, “Jail, Part 2”, “Ok Ok, Part 2”, “Junya, Part 2”

Categories: Entertainment, Opinion

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