“Even if you are not ready for the day, it cannot always be night.” These words, said by the late Dr. Donda West, are heard on the introduction to the sixth track of Kanye West’s 10th studio album, Donda. This maxim is fitting, considering that shortly after Donda’s release, West posted on Instagram that the album was prematurely released without his approval. It’s not a surprise—perhaps his record label was fed up with the constant delays, just like his fans. West originally announced on July 21st, 2020 that Donda would be releasing in the next few days, but the album did not release until over a year later.
Between Donda’s original announcement and its official release, West held 3 separate listening parties, two in Atlanta, his birthplace, and one in the city he grew up in, Chicago. With each listening party, the album evolved, with West adding new guest vocals each time, changing production, and adding additional verses. For a while, Donda wasn’t an album—it was performance art. West lived in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz stadium for weeks while working on the album, donned avant-garde outfits for each listening party, and even lit himself on fire in the last listening party, all while hiding his entire face behind a black mask. This mask has become a symbol of West’s Donda era, and he’s worn one almost every public appearance of 2021. I interpret this mask as West letting the music speak for itself. West’s reputation is that of someone who’s always making controversial statements, from his 2009 outburst at VMA’s, to his 2018 comments about slavery being a choice. This time around, West avoided interviews, said very little publicly, and even made Donda’s album cover all black to let the fans focus on the music and performance—not the spectacle.
Donda is a Christian hip-hop album in which West raps about the loss of his mother (the album’s namesake), his religious faith, family, and his recent divorce. West’s 2019 album, Jesus Is King, also featured heavy religious imagery, but fell flat at times, with West admitting that a portion of the album was recorded using his iPhone. Donda on the other hand takes the same religious imagery but presents it in a more refined manner. In the song “Lord I Need You,” West reflects on his tumultuous relationship with his ex-wife Kim Kardashian and his struggles with alcoholism. In the same song, West raps about finding comfort in his faith and knowing that God is watching over his family. On “Jesus Lord,” West and Jay Electronica provide social commentary on issues like drug addiction, the cyclic nature of violence, and the negative impacts of imperialism on countries like Ghana and Haiti. Other songs, like “New Again,” take a less serious tone—on a song about spiritual rebirth, West includes a lyric about his annoyance with people that text “hey” instead of “heyyyy.” Along with “New Again,” “Believe What I Say” is one of the handfuls of songs with a lighter tone. The song is high-energy and Lauryn Hill’s catchy sample blends in with the instrumental, making the track easily the album’s most replayable song.
Donda’s highest-charting song, “Hurricane,” is another standout track, featuring a connection to Yale. The song was originally previewed by West in 2018. The first listening party in July of this year added a verse by Lil Baby to the song, while the second saw additional vocals from The Weeknd and a choir. On “Hurricane,” West raps “dropped out of school, but I’m that one at Yale.” To the best of my knowledge, West hasn’t been to Yale since his performance at Toads in 2004, but Spring Fling is coming up next semester so who knows.
Other highlights from the album include “Remote Control,” featuring Young Thug, “Moon,” which features mesmerizing vocal performances from Don Toliver and Kid Cudi, and “Off the Grid,” which features a hard-hitting instrumental and great verses from Playboi Carti, Fivio Foreign, and Kanye himself. “Jail” is another notable song that features the first collaboration between Kanye and Jay-Z since the two appeared on Drake’s “Pop Style” in 2016. One of Donda’s strengths is its guest appearances and the highlighted songs demonstrate Kanye’s ability to create an ensemble that harmonizes the various talents of different artists.
However, Donda does have some low points, its extensive runtime being one. The album clocks in at 1 hour and 48 minutes, four times longer than West’s previous album. The last four songs on Donda are alternative versions of songs that appeared earlier on the album. Most of these songs add very little to the album and seem redundant. The album’s seventh song, “Jonah,” features guest vocals from Vory and Lil Durk, and an obnoxious instrumental that sounds lifeless when compared to the version previewed by West at his first and second listening parties. However, the album’s worst song is easily “Tell The Vision,” a heavily censored and low-quality excerpt from a Pop Smoke song released earlier this year. Despite the album’s flaws, Donda is still a well-crafted album.
With Donda, West shows that he can still create versatile albums. This versatility means that a lot of people will find at least one song that fits their taste. Some songs sound like they could be played at a church service, while others sound like something you’d hear at a party. In the same breath, some songs dive deep into Kanye’s psyche, while others sound like West is in the studio joking around and having fun. Donda is by no means a perfect album, but it very well may be the first #1 album that directly mentions Yale. #YeezyForSpringFling