For the good, the controversial and the things we just can’t ignore
Not long ago, Kanye West anticlimactically dropped his tenth studio album, Donda. Finally, after the spectacle of three listening parties—with the last one going to extreme lengths to shock audiences (see: guest appearances by Marilyn Manson and DaBaby, and West setting himself on fire)—it’s here. I listened to the whole album during the night of its release, bopped my head to Jail, Off the Grid and Pure Souls. In the days that ensued, I tracked music charts and checked the reviews to see what everyone, from fans, to critics to publications had to say. The statements were polarizing, from “I’ve listened to Donda four times in one night” and “It’s his best album since Yeezus” to “Donda needs an editor” and “the presence of men accused of violence against women and anti-gays are inexcusable.” In the end, Kanye West got exactly what he wanted: everyone’s attention. But at what cost?
— Spotify Charts (@spotifycharts) September 9, 2021
West has done nearly everything no one expects him to do but the last few years, his political association with Donald Trump and his decision to run a very last-minute and, quite frankly, embarrassing presidential campaign, have left many to wonder if Ye’s fans will still show up for him. Personally, I was conflicted. I like Kanye West as an artist—his music and his aesthetic—but I don’t support his person. I hoped Donda would be his salvation.
The 27-track album, if his last two were any indication, is genre-bending and varied. Fame, family and faith intersect as expected as West’s works are often introspective and personal.
Jail opens Donda, which features the hotly anticipated reunion of Kanye West and Jay-Z. And while it teeters the line between good and just okay, what many fans really care about is the return of The Throne and what it means for Ye and Hov in the future.
Moon featuring Kid Cudi stands out among other gems as Cudi opens up about fighting feelings of loneliness and wanting to start over. “Heaven knows I might never sleep, trouble in my soul / Hey, I've been prayin', life can be drainin,' oh / Hey, we were late, tryna keep haulin' on,” he spits. His lyricism combined with rich guitar and synth lines make this a tearjerker. It’s the kind of track you put on late at night to feel your feelings.
Then there’s Jesus Lord, a song on healing, forgiveness and salvation, which features Jay Electronica, known for his brilliant and spiritually-tinged lyrics. Here, West ruminates on his loss as his mother’s speech explodes into contemporary worship.
Another choice track is Hurricane featuring the Weeknd and Lil Baby. It delivers pain and strength wrapped in sound that’s wistful but sexy, and immaculate in cadence and lyricism.
For Jonah, Lil Durk and Vory are brought in and the result is both a breathtaking and heart-wrenching ode to brothers lost and reunited. It explores hope amid violence as Durk rhymes, “Know how it feel to lose a brother, we got a bond still / Twenty-six years, pops got out to see his son killed.”
Contradictions, Cancel Culture & Controversy
But while the album has its moments, Donda can be jarring. I once said that Jesus is King was like going to the club with God, but Donda takes you on a journey everywhere. It’ll take you to church then talk to you about extravagant lifestyles, share your pain and then preach to you.
The album being named after Mrs. Donda West, I was looking for her beyond Jesus Lord, which is powerful stuff but there’s not enough of it. Then there’s the attempt to flip the script on cancel culture by getting collaborators with multiple lawsuits over sexual assault allegations (one is convicted) and who are homophobic and, well, ignorant. The message on whether or not their inclusion was a stunt or a plea for reconciliation remains unclear. In the case of Jail 2, however, it doesn’t offer a dialogue, but a forced conversation with the cancelled. DaBaby spits, “I said one thing they ain’t like, threw me out like they ain’t care for me / Threw me out like I’m garbage, huh? / And that food that y’all took off my table / You know that feed my daughters, huh?” His verse comes across more as a grumble than an expression of remorse.
— 876MafiaTV (@876Mafia) September 13, 2021
Personally, I’ve learned to separate the art from the artist, and the product from the person. Because there’s always going to be something disappointing about someone–their political stance, their apathy towards climate change, their misguided activism, their work ethic. But the work of Kanye West hits differently this time.
West’s attempt at playing judge and jury, and the ill-judged choice in collaborators alienate if not betray his audience: the women, the gays, and their causes. It overshadows the music and contradicts his message on gospel and family. The controversy surrounding the album is distracting and the “stunt,” regardless of intention, trivializes the plight of abuse victims and people living with HIV. Donda may arguably be one of Kanye West’s best albums but it leaves a sour taste you just can’t cleanse or ignore.
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver