After delays longer than the project itself, Donda, Kanye West’s tenth studio album—and much-awaited addition to his discography—is finally here.
Since West’s introduction to the music industry in 2004 with his debut album, The College Dropout, he has proven himself as a character to be marveled at. Through his unique production style, as well as his ability to manipulate and flip classic soul and jazz records, West pioneered a new era of hip-hop production. However, following the downturn of this last decade, West suffered a spiral of poor decisions, which have arguably tainted the critically acclaimed position he once held. From publicly endorsing Donald Trump, to the infamous Wyoming sessions—which felt unfinished, uninspired, and rushed—West tore apart his public image and ruined his credibility.
Being an artist myself, I have observed that during most creative endeavours, the idea of perfection can become counterproductive by prolonging the end goal. With many delayed and cancelled projects, West seems to be plagued by this same principle.
For those who follow West’s antics, it would be common knowledge that Donda was initially teased with an expected release date of summer last year. One year later, this album honouring his mother has either fallen short or far exceeded the expectations of listeners. West is known for his meticulous workflow and for relentlessly testing sonic barriers of music that are rarely challenged, as he did for Yeezus, his sixth studio album released in 2013. In the case of Donda, the typical Kanye flair is missing, and the project exhibits a general sense of short-sightedness.
It seems like an oxymoron to refer to a 27-track-long album as short-sighted, but perhaps the failure of cohesiveness speaks to the lack of direction from start to finish.
Artists with extensive discographies comparable to the likes of West, such as Kendrick Lamar and Drake, are often expected to release projects with a conceptual framework reflecting their life or experiences in the time since their last release. Leading up to the release of Donda, West surely seemed on track to do so.
On July 22, 2021, at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, West hosted what would be the first of three listening parties dedicated to his upcoming work. West stood alone at the center of the stadium as he unveiled his project for the first time. The music was raw, unfinished, and scattered, likely reflective of Kanye’s state of mind as he embarked upon a journey to confront the wounds left unattended following the death of his mother.
The second listening party, which was held roughly one week later, on August 5, would portray West in a different light, as he literally ascended to the night sky in what seemed to depict a more collected and enlightened Kanye. The third listening party, hosted in his hometown of Chicago nearly a month later, on August 26, would produce the most focused and conceptual Kanye, and Donda project, the world had yet to see.
By recreating his childhood home and surrounding himself with controversial characters, such as DaBaby and Marilyn Manson, listeners were captivated. The show concluded with West lighting himself on fire to figuratively represent his detachment from the grief and mourning of his mother’s death. This act was also meant to depict West rejoicing in his faith and belief in God with his redemption from the sinful coping strategies he previously resorted to, such as substance abuse and frivolous relationships.
Despite the theatrical nature of the listening parties, the concepts of self-discovery and redemption that reigned so heavily during the shows failed to deliver upon the album’s release. The sporadic workflow, stunted release, and lengthy tracklist exemplify Donda’s lack of direction.
Listening to the album is akin to listening to a collaborative project in which West handled the production and curated artists to his ideas. Donda is extremely feature-heavy and at times feels reliant upon the performance of other artists to convey what conceptually should be a tribute to West’s late mother. Compared to the depth of the listening parties and their concepts, the album feels shallow.
Sonically, the project lacks the ingenuity that West’s production is renowned for, the instrumentals sound barren and cold—not at all reminiscent of the soulful aspects his earlier career was founded upon. Nonetheless, there are tracks that explore themes of redemption and his newfound faith, but the issue is that these songs, such as “Jesus Lord” or “Come to Life,” are reminiscent of his previous 2019 studio album, Jesus Is King, and feel out of place on Donda.
This album could have been a triumphant return for West, but it fell short as a tribute to his mother, Donda. The grandiose themes and subject matter of the listening parties were lost once they were mastered and released for our listening purposes.
Donda is undoubtedly a good body of work with quality elements that most artists will never attain. But to consider the journey of Kanye West, who as an early producer was written off as a rapper and fought to break through the barriers of being an overlooked artist, Donda does not translate to the levels of creativity that West would frequently transcend with each release. Instead, this subdued album is ultimately a weak link to his otherwise strong discography.