REVIEW: Kanye West looks for God on ‘Donda’
The rapper and producer’s 10th album is a spiritual journey with impressive highs and lows
Nobody knows how to work the hype machine quite like Kanye West.
The hectic release of his 10th studio album "Donda" created a typical West media frenzy, but when listeners strip away the theatrics, they’ll find an assortment of heartfelt songs exploring loss, love and faith.
"Donda" comes off the heels of West’s highly publicized divorce from Kim Kardashian and his ill-fated presidential campaign. During a series of listening parties at stadiums in Atlanta and Chicago, he tested different iterations of the album for millions of listeners. These events, coupled with its ever-changing release date, made “Donda” one of the most anticipated albums of the year.
The album is primarily a reflection of West’s beliefs and mental state during this trying time in his life. The title honors West’s mother, Donda West, who passed away in 2007 after a botched surgery. Much of the album is cathartic; we hear Kanye process his divorce and the loss of his mother through personal, raw songs like “Moon,” where he begs a lover, “Don’t leave so soon.” Kanye’s faith is the backbone of “Donda,” allowing him to cope with these losses and bleeding into the production and lyrics of every track. This is best exemplified in “24,” one of the album's many highlights, where Kanye sings about healing from his mother’s death through Christianity. Over a gospel organ and muted pianos, he gives some of the album's most sincere and beautiful moments, singing to his late mother, “I know you’re alive and God’s not finished.”
The most impressive part of this album is easily the production; with expansive beats that effortlessly cross and combine genres, integrating trap, gospel, rock and electronica, sometimes all at once. The tracks on "Donda" feel tailor-made for the arenas where they debuted. From the guitar riffs on “Jail” to the Weeknd’s soaring chorus on “Hurricane,” many songs capture an anthemic, hypnotic energy. With the album clocking in at nearly two hours, the sheer variety of beats keep most of it feeling fresh. The funky bass line and Lauryn Hill sample on “Believe What I Say'' provide a nice change of pace, while the driving drums and screeching rock sample on “Heaven and Hell” give it an undeniable electricity. The gorgeous pianos on “Come to Life” add a heavenly quality to the whole song, the final puzzle piece in an already gorgeous song about finding strength through God.
Kanye does some of his best singing and rapping in years on parts of this album, and his pure passion brings life and energy to "Donda." Perhaps driven by discontentment with the mixed reception to his recent projects, Kanye sounds hungry again, rapping “Look at the problems and issues I'm livin' through / They tryna drown me, I rise to my pinnacle.” His most impressive verse comes off of “Jesus Lord,” a nine-minute track where he raps about depression, his mother, cyclical gang violence and addiction. The gritty trap beat on “Off the Grid” contrasts the more sentimental songs, and Kanye delivers some of his most quotable bars, like “I got this God power, that’s my leverages / I got this Holy Water, that’s my beverages.”
But many of the best moments in "Donda" are thanks to the army of collaborators and features that Kanye enlisted. On the aforementioned “Off the Grid,” Fivio Foreign steals the show with his verse, reflecting on his position in the rap industry and his relationship with God. Don Toliver and Kid Cudi’s vocals on “Moon” float over the gentle instrumental as they sing about loss and overcoming depression. Rap veterans Jay Electronica and Jay-Z demonstrate their lyrical prowess on “Jesus Lord” and “Jail” respectively, packing their verses with biblical references and clever wordplay.
With all of the points on "Donda" that are truly great, there are plenty of misfires as well. Parts of this album are in desperate need of an edit, like the three-minute outro on “God Breathed” or the awkward interlude “Tell The Vision.” Other tracks just add nothing to the album. The closer “No Child Left Behind,” feels unnecessary and includes some of Kanye’s most surface-level religious messaging. "Donda" also comes with four remixed versions of other songs on the album, which should have been bonus content for a deluxe edition. In an otherwise serious album, a fair share of corny bars and head-scratching production choices ruin the immersion, like Kanye calling his marriage with Kim Kardashian “the best collab since Taco Bell and KFC” or ending the grating “Remote Control” with a bizarre “Globglogabagalab” sample.
However, "Donda’s” most egregious offense is the slew of abusers and homophobes that Kanye recruited as features. It is incredibly off-putting to hear Chris Brown sing “I repent for everything I’ma do again” in light of the repeated domestic violence allegations he faces. Marilyn Manson, fresh off accusations of sexual abuse and DaBaby, whose homophobic comments have drawn justified outrage, are both features on “Jail pt 2.” It is hard to tell whether the inclusion of these artists is yet another scheme for publicity, but it contradicts "Donda’s” religious message and leaves a sour taste in the listener’s mouth that is hard to ignore.
All of the antics that weigh this album down are a shame, considering that "Donda" contains some of Kanye’s most powerful work of the last decade. If listeners can get over all of the obstacles that Kanye puts in place to enjoying this album — the unfinished tracks, the marathon length, the filler and the abusers on the supporting cast — there is a great album in here somewhere. I just wish Kanye didn’t make it so hard to find.