Donda, Donda, Donda

DONDA album cover

In keeping with the Christian theme of his last couple of albums, one could say that Kanye West committed a cardinal sin with DONDA.

It does not (or at least not solely) lie in the length of the album, which goes on for almost two hours. This wouldn’t be an issue per se, but what makes it problematic is one simple fact: After the tantric “Donda Chant”, which sets the stage for everything else to come, he transitions right into the album’s strongest song.

As soon as the distorted guitars open the next track, we know that Ye is back in the ring. “Jail” is a song that’s packed with significance. On the one hand, it’s the most direct artistic confrontation of his breakup with Kim Kardashian. On the other, it marks the first time that he and Jay-Z feature on the same track in half a decade, stirring plenty of rumors for a return of The Throne. Hova even manages to squeeze in a line about telling Yeezus to “stop all that red cap”, almost giving the impression that Ye’s self-proclaimed “superhero recovery” following his numerous public meltdowns has been completed.

In that sense, “Jail” is the perfect opener for DONDA—honest, exhilarating, and, most importantly, keeping you on your toes for what’s next.

If we disregard “God Breathed On This”, which sounds like a track that didn’t make the cut for Yeezus, it seems like Kanye is scoring a run with DONDA’s first couple of songs. To keep them varied, he invited a whole romp of triple-A co-performers, starting with Playboy Carti on “Off the Grid”, followed by The Weeknd on “Hurricane”, and finally his long-time protégée Travis Scott on “Praise God”, the intro of which easily is one of the album’s high points.

But while DONDA seemed poised to become a musically memorable record at just a couple of tracks in, this is where things start to take a bit of an awkward turn.

alternative art proposal by Louise Bourgeois

No Song Left Behind

About 20 minutes in, DONDA starts approaching the runtime of Kanye’s markedly curt previous two solo albums, ye and Jesus Is King. Interestingly, this is also the point where DONDA is starting to show its colossal 109-minute length.

The next half-dozen of songs simply fail to leave a lasting impression. Whether it’s the repetitive autotune chorus of “Jonah”, “Ok Ok”’s talk about how the “price went up (angel investor)”, or the sophisticated gibberish of “Junya”, nothing quite sticks.

What’s noticeable is that Ye seems compelled to include at least one major feature on every song, with only three out of 27 tracks sporting him alone.

“Junya” for example marks Carti’s second appearance on the album. But while his first one on “Off the Grid” really elevated the track, his second feature—much like “Junya” itself—could have easily been scrapped without the album losing anything but excessive mileage.

Two local highs in DONDA’s first half come in with “Believe What I Say” and “24”, which aren’t exactly great, but at least they have a catchy chorus. In addition, “24” is one of the few occasions on the record that Ye actually makes use of his Sunday Church Choir that he so carefully curated over the past years.

Unfortunately, the second half of DONDA is even more of a mixed bag than the first.

initial cover art proposal for DONDA

It Can Always Be Night

“Heaven and Hell” marked the final point at which I still had hope for DONDA to bounce back in some way, with Kanye’s ecstatic booming voice paving the way for the album’s eponymous “Donda”.

Since its inception in 2019, it was clear that Kanye was planning to dedicate an album to his late mother Donda West. Adding the looming divorce with Kim and his personal faith journey to this, one could easily single out DONDA as Kanye’s most personal album to date. Given the excessive amount of delays even by Mr. West’s standards, expectations were unbearably high—and the one with the highest expectations undoubtedly being Kanye himself.

Whether he achieved what he was aiming for remains impossible to ascertain, but the adage that “less can be more” rarely fit better than here.

Neither the narrative strength nor the cohesion of the album would have greatly suffered it was cut short by 40 to 50%. No track pair symbolizes this better than “Jesus Lord” and the album’s final track, creatively named “Jesus Lord pt 2”. Together, they form a 20-minute cluster of Kanye and his star posse exchanging monologues about their faith without any real takeaways.

What happens in the better part of an hour between the two pieces was largely lost on me, no matter how many times I tried. The most memorable moment within that stretch might just be when, on “Lord I Need You”, Kanye rhymes “Palm Springs” with “Walgreen’s” and “prom queen” with “mom jeans” before rapping about “the best collab since Taco Bell and KFC”. And here I was, thinking that Lorde became the semi-ironic soul of modern Americana.

Neither Roddie Ricch proclaiming that “the truth is only what you get away with” nor Carti coming in for a third time on “Junya pt. 2” really manage to justify the album going into over-over-overtime.

Two more pieces worth touching on are “No Child Left Behind” and “Jail pt. 2”. The former is the closest thing that DONDA offers to an actual Christian hymn, thanks to its careful organ intonation and Kanye’s constant reaffirmation that “He’s done miracles on [him]”. Given the vague nature of the song, it remains unclear whether it targets the famous Bush-era policy, his outspoken anti-abortion stance, or the fate of his own children after a possible divorce.

The much more controversial tune however is “Jail pt. 2”. Together with DaBaby and Marilyn Manson, Kanye decides to form a sort of trifecta of “canceled artists”, as all three have been subject to severe criticism recently or in the past (Kanye for his Trump support, DaBaby for his homophobic views, and Manson due to mounting sexual abuse allegations against him). Due to a row with Universal Studios, the song was barred from initial listening events and online releases, but soon found its way on streaming services.

Forever Donda

On the surface, DONDA seems like Kanye’s version of an obituary for his late mother. Beyond that, it is however in equal parts a statement on his reactionary spiritual and political beliefs. After Jesus is King, DONDA becomes yet another album where the best parts don’t come from Kanye himself, but his features.

In the title track, Donda West herself reveals Kanye’s intention with the album: a testament to his mother, but also a testament to her “decidedly different” son and his faith.

Besides “Jail” and “Off the Grid”, there’s one more DONDA song that occasionally strays my mind: “Keep My Spirit Alive”. It features superb performances by Griselda Records rappers Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine. Ultimately, however, it’s a ray of light in an otherwise depressingly long spiritual ordure.

Hopefully, Kanye’s next album will be a less meaning-laden one. One where he himself will shine instead of his co-conspirators. If not, comparisons to the wondrous tunes of Peppa Pig will rightly remain the norm.

6/10

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One Reply to “Donda, Donda, Donda”

  1. Marcus says:

    If this was Ye trying to prove his superpower recovery, I remain unconvinced

    Reply

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