In the late 2000s, Kanye West’s consistency was his greatest weapon. You could rely on a record to be bold, brash, with evolution but recognizable within the palate of sounds and themes West’s raps were acclaimed for. Similarly, a West production teased out the absolute best in whatever emcee he was working for. This review doesn’t want to hinge on some tired “I miss the old Kanye” critique, making it all the more frustrating that West’s new consistency is his greatest (arguably) flaw.
Earlier in July, rumblings of a release for the long-awaited tenth album from West, Donda, picked up some credible momentum. On 22 July, West premiered the album during an event at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz stadium streamed on Apple Music. If you watched it live, you got to hear Donda. If you were at the home of Atlanta United, instead of soccer, you saw a boldly dressed Kanye dancing to his album in the center of the pitch, vibing, as one Twitter user put it. If you missed the show, other than a scant few clips, you had to wait to hear Donda because, as West’s consistency is key, he once again delayed the album’s release to 6 August.
On 6 August, as sure as a liar’s word is, Donda did not drop. Instead, Kanye hosted another listening party in Mercedes-Benz stadium, where he has taken up residence since late July. At the event, which was once again streamed on Apple Music, West shared footage of him “finishing” the album before playing what listeners say is a much different, vastly improved version of the previous, and ended in Kanye levitating above the arena. You can fault West for a million things, but never say Kanye isn’t committed to the spectacle. It’s just too bad Donda took so long to materialize, for spectacle can threaten to overshadow the album itself.
Because, of course, the third listening event – this time a hometown ‘show’ at Chicago’s Soldier Field – on Thursday, 26 August also didn’t yield a wide release of Donda. At least Atlanta United got their stadium back. By all accounts, this event was a spectacle like no other, and surely the thousands of fans in attendance have a kind word for the tenth studio album from Kanye West. Or, perhaps a terrible comment about the bizarre inclusion of accused serial abuser Marilyn Manson and homophobic rapper DaBaby, both of whom are credited on the album. The rest of us, on the other hand, had to wait until a surprise drop this past Sunday.
Perhaps it goes without saying that Kanye West’s post The Life of Pablo public behavior has been disagreeable, to use a charitable term. Listeners might be able to separate the art from the artist, and we might agree that lots of great art was made by imperfect men (or men who align themselves with bad – even terrible – men). The problem with Donda and its creator is that the album is not great art and Kanye is too far fallen from his lauded genius to be “bad”. He’s more idiot than evil, more dunce than damage. Before considering the challenge of a 27-track album that is one hour and 48 minutes long, Donda is a complex product to consider because of how tied to out-sized spectacle, controversy, and how closely tied to abusers Kanye has been. Those are good reasons not to listen to Donda.
If you decide to dive into the feature-film length collection of songs, you’ll find West firmly in the sonic palette of his post-TLOP run. There are messy, antagonistic productions akin that extend the Yeezus formula of pummeling listeners into submission. “Jail”, the track featuring Jay-Z’s new all-time corniest verse (“God in my cells / That’s my celly / Made in the image of god / That’s a selfie”), drones along with a throbbing siren buried in the mix below stabbing synth notes and ends with an extended industrial percussion solo. It sounds interesting. “Junya” coaxes some interesting vocal ad-libbing out of West, though “skirt skirt” sounds like a 40-something trying to fit in with the kids, which, I guess, Kanye is. “Heaven and Hell” has a nasty drop that could compete with “Blood on the Leaves” at a music festival set.
Like 2018’s Ye, Kanye’s writing from an unguarded point of view. Still, instead of the lyrically dense and downright filthy days of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, songs like “Off the Grid” (a genuinely OK track) ends with the funny in a wrong way: “Some say Adam / Could never be black / Cuz a black man / Would never share his rib.” In “Lord I Need You”, West hybridizes hymn and a mournful call out to a former flame, “tryin’ to do the right thing with the freedom you gave me”. Like Jesus Is King, West overwhelmingly evokes imagery and themes from his Christian faith.
In the beautiful “Come to Life” near the end of the record, he sings, “You the air that I breath / The ultra, ultra-light beam” and “God is still alive / Floatin’ on a sliver lining / So when I’m free / I’m free”, and you can almost find something like joy for West’s praise over the shimmering pianos. Of course, he also sings, “They cannot define me / So they crucify me”, so it’s a little hard to take overt praise songs like “Jesus Lord” or “Pure Souls” seriously in light of such profoundly sacrilegious lyrics.
The diamond in the rough is easily “Believe What I Say”, which perhaps not coincidently is also tied closely to early aughts Kanye West. A Lauren Hill sample provides the backing soul-flip of West’s sound up through 808s and Heartbreaks. The opening bars, “You need somethin’ unexpected, some form of weapon” and “Why the hell are you worried? / play something that is very, very vibe-worthy / I don’t know what my mind alerting”, trade the clumsy lyrics of New Kanye for the artful complex rhyme schemes of Old Kanye.
Other highlights, hard as hell to find in the sprawling tracklist, include a sublime Weeknd feature in “Hurricane”, “Praise God” channels Star Wars by interpolating the voice of the late Donda West along with Travis Scott, Kanye, and Baby Keem and gives us the Twitter-ready line: “The devil my opp, can’t pay me to stop (it’s lit!).”
There’s a rare moment of humility in “24″, where West sings – shouts really – “we gon’ be okay” alongside a choir and over a discordant organ playing for an imagined too-hot summertime congregation. It’s as close to sublime as the messy, deeply flawed Donda gets. It almost tricks listeners into forgetting the weeks of false promises, lies, blown release dates, and manufactured controversy. For one second, it feels like West has broken through, then you remember all this time West’s greatest gift is still his consistency. Not the false-perfectionist tinkering on the best version of the album (that would have produced a far, far less bloated Donda). Not the virtuosic lyricist and rapper. Not the paradigm-shifting stage producer (reports from the ground in Chicago suggest the listening party was chaotic, disorganized, a damn mess – and that’s not even thinking about DaBaby and Manson’s inclusion).
No, the New Kanye West’s consistency is his liar’s tongue. During one of Donda’s many prayers, he sings, “this is not about me”. We see Kanye for what he really is, the thing he’s been since, charitably, the release of Yeezus: a conceited man with an ego missing the talent or creative drive to back it up. There’s a good album somewhere inside Donda. Similarly, there’s a good man and a great artist somewhere inside Kanye West. As he continues to find faith and sanity, maybe he’ll find a more suitable tribute for his mother and make a better entry into his legacy.