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THOUGHTS ON DONDA

Donda marks the first Kanye West rollout to captivate the attention of my 15-year-old. In late July, he was skeptical when I explained there was no way the album would actually drop on its original release date. (Because what do dads know?) He sat through three stadium listening sessions, streamed everything from 2004’s The College Dropout to 2016’s The Life of Pablo in preparation and was the first to tell me Donda had finally landed Sunday morning. However halfway cancelled Ye may be on my Twitter feed, the spectacle of Donda is the first pop moment my high-schooler has cared about. He hit the bull's-eye dead center with the youth, then.

Donda—named for Dr. Donda C. West (Kanye’s mom, who died in 2007)—is exactly the same length (one hour and 49 minutes) as the Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death. Unfortunately, the two albums don’t share equal cohesion in the slightest. Conciseness goes out the window with 27 songs, which include Donda’s alternate versions of “Jail,” “Ok Ok,” “Junya” and “Jesus Lord,” tacked on at the end. A few of those extra takes make the originals moot, particularly “Ok Ok, Pt. 2,” on which dancehall princess Shenseea shines like a supernova. Kanye ranted on social media that UMG released Donda without his permission, presumably because the tweaking could have gone on forever.

That said, Donda would have benefited from more fine-tuning. Mixing the echoey atmospherics of Yeezus, the lovelorn mood of 808s & Heartbreak and the religiosity of the Grammy-winning gospel album Jesus Is King, Donda chases spiritual salvation even more than it memorializes Ye's mother.

After starting off with Syleena Johnson’s repetitive invocation of Dr. West’s name, “Jail” ushers in a reverberating boom clearly designed for sold-out stadiums. On this Watch the Throne-worthy reunion with Jay-Z, Jay spits, “Donda, I’m with your baby when I touch back road/ Told him, ‘Stop all of that red cap, we goin’ home.’” If only Donda were actually where Ye made overtures toward coming back to his senses from supporting Donald Trump and Bill Cosby, claiming slavery was a choice, etc., ad nauseam. Instead, alleged sexual predator Marilyn Manson appears on “Jail, Pt. 2” alongside DaBaby, infamous lately for blatant homophobia.

By track number five (“Praise God,” featuring Baby Keem and Travis Scott), the Christian-inspirational vibe of Donda becomes obvious. Kanye’s verses on “God Breathed,” “Heaven and Hell,” “Lord I Need You” and others maintain the energy of his Sunday Service Choir’s Jesus Is Born. By track number seven (“Jonah,” featuring Lil Durk and Vory), the perhaps excessively collaborative nature of the album starts to announce itself. Kanye’s production throughout still sounds stellar, far less worse for wear than his lyricism. Though some of his best bars in years appear on “Jesus Lord,” Ye mostly pads the album with a cavalcade of guests: The Weeknd, the LOX, Jay Electronica, Young Thug, Playboi Carti, Kid Cudi and on and on.

Donda has highlights, of course. Drill and trap-adjacent rap production dominates the heights of “Jail,” “Moon,” “Off the Grid,” “Hurricane” and “Jonah.” Had Donda been trimmed like a 2018 GOOD summer EP, it could have been hailed a comeback classic. As it stands, it may end up with that reputation anyway; Donda just topped the Apple Music charts in 152 countries, shattered the platform's 2021 record for the most-streamed artist in a single day and broke the 2021 Spotify record for first-day streams for an album.

“It ain’t how it used to be/ This the new me, so get used to me,” Kanye repeats twice on the bridge of “Pure Souls.” He’s got more of an uphill, against-the-wind battle to win me over than my more forgiving, less politically minded teenager. Donda sounds beautiful, almost trance-inducing at certain points, and Kanye’s rollout had all the pomp and circumstance of Michael Jackson's debuting the “Thriller” video decades before my son was born. But by the time high school starts, will Drake’s Certified Lover Boy be the dominant topic of 11th-grade conversation?

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