Few figures in pop culture are as polarizing as Kanye West. Through public antics, the immodest rapper has earned both a massive cult following and widespread critical panning. Perhaps there is no better microcosm for the duality of Kanye than the circus surrounding the release of his tenth album, Donda. For over a year, Kanye teased his latest album through cryptic social media posts and packed stadium listening parties, while earning thousands of dollars in merchandise.
Even after the cat and mouse games Kanye played with the media, many thought Donda would never see the light of day. Nonetheless, his ever-loyal fan base remained. The craziness that Kanye fans are subjected to on a yearly basis is even more meaningful when you consider their unwavering dedication to the man’s music. That said, not everyone lost their minds when Kanye finally surprise-released the album.
Daily Arts Writers Ryan Brace and Kai Bartol will present conflicting perspectives on the music industry’s biggest release of the year thus far.
Kanye lets the guests shine
In a vein similar to his previous two albums, the highs of Donda are representative of a musical genius providing a masterclass in the art of both production and personnel management. Kanye always seems to know exactly who to feature on his songs, and Donda has no shortage of brilliant guest appearances. Standout guest verses include Don Toliver and Kid Cudi on the ethereal “Moon,” The Weeknd and Lil Baby on “Hurricane” and a star turn from a reinvigorated Fivio Foreign on “Off the Grid.”
The production on “Off the Grid” is especially impressive, as Kanye masterfully explores the electronic sounds of his album Yeezus and Playboi Carti’s Whole Lotta Red before pivoting to a Brooklyn drill beat, complete with the trademark hi-hats and sliding 808s of the genre.
Perhaps the most impressive guest appearance on the album is that of Kentucky-based rapper and singer Vory, who dazzles on gospel songs in a way that many rappers cannot. “No Child Left Behind” sees Vory and Kanye croon over an organ dirge, and transports the listener to a massive cathedral with the rappers leading the service.
The majority of the album’s best tracks are helped in no small part by the featuring artists, but one of Kanye’s best qualities has always been facilitating his collaborators and enabling them to do their best possible work. The most anthemic track on the album, “Jail,” sees Kanye explore arena rock and indie, enlisting the help of Francis and the Lights, before tasking old friend Jay-Z with writing a rap verse for a percussion-free stadium sing-along. While Jay-Z more than holds his own, this track is notable for being one of the few instances in the album where Kanye outperforms his featured artists.
Daily Arts Writer Ryan Brace can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘Donda:’ messy and incongruous
It seems that in the past five years Kanye West has found increasing ways to boost his controversial image. MAGA hats, presidential bids and a strange grasp on history are likely what first come to mind when most people think of Kanye. However, within this same period, Kanye has been outspoken against the criminal justice system, supported the victims of police brutality and has become viewed by many as an advocate for mental health. On Donda, the hip-hop star captures his bizarre public energy and crams it into a nearly two-hour-long package.
One of the biggest controversies surrounding Donda relates to two of the features Kanye chose to highlight in the album. On the track “Jail, Pt. 2,” Kanye brings on DaBaby — who recently faced widespread backlash after homophobic comments made at this year’s Rolling Loud festival — and Marilyn Manson, who has recently been dropped by his record label following multiple allegations of sexual abuse.
Kanye’s decision to place these two figures on what is essentially a frivolous track and feature them heavily at his third listening party is inexcusable. Although it seems Kanye’s reputation with his fans is ironclad, no fan should condone the support of destructive public figures.
If you’re able to get past Kanye’s extreme poor taste on “Jail, Pt. 2,” there’s quite a bit to like on Donda. Tracks such as “Off the Grid” and “Praise God” rank as career bests for Kanye.
Further, the overall production of the album embodies his signature maximalist style, and the record’s gospel elements surpass the ambitions of his previous record, Jesus is King. Donda also packs a punch with its stunning lineup of features. These features — along with the wide-spanning themes of faith, family and tragedy — feel like a celebration of modern hip hop and a culmination of Kanye’s career.
However, right as Donda begins to stretch over the one-hour mark, praise for the record begins to stretch thin. While many of the individual moments on Donda are excellent, the album as a whole is severely lacking. Looking at the album at arm’s length, one sees a bloated mess of 27 songs that are barely held together.
Immediately after Donda was surprise-dropped, Kanye claimed that the album was released without his approval. This fact may explain why the last four songs at the end of the album are remixes of previous songs with very few changes. This indecisiveness may allude to future revisions of the album, but Donda, as it stands in its current state, feels wholly incomplete.
While Donda contains some stunning highs, these moments are equally matched with some ugly lows. During the production of the record, Kanye could have benefited from a copy editor to cut down his incomplete, grandiose mess into a tight collection of highlights.
The mess of Donda, coupled with the drawn-out developmental hell the album underwent, matches Kanye’s increasingly erratic public persona. If Kanye continues on his current course, it seems his next record will end up being even more bizarre.
Daily Arts Writer Kai Bartol can be reached at email@example.com.