Things are rarely simple with Kanye West. It’s this fact that makes him one of the 21st Century’s most interesting and frustrating creative forces, and for the past ten years or so now, a Kanye album roll out has never failed to be an event; often as exciting as it is infuriating.
Deadlines, release dates, leaks and listening parties have come and gone since its original 2020 due date, however, ‘DONDA’ finally hit streaming services on August 29th, at 27 tracks long and approaching two hours in length.
Upon seeing the stats, your first thought may be that not even someone with Kanye’s potential can maintain a standard to justify. And you would be right. ‘DONDA’ is predictably bloated and unnecessarily uneven and, though his albums have often teetered on being overblown, it fails to master the art of maximalism like ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ or revel in chaos as successfully as ‘The Life of Pablo’ did.
Thematically, it’s not the focused machine you would expect after 18 months in the pipeline. Kanye is scattershot, bouncing between bars that tackle relationships, grief, God and everything in between, but he doesn’t dive in deep, instead letting the vast array of features often steal what could have been his most personal release away from him. For all the potential and intrigue of Kanye titling the album in tribute to his late mother, whose influence on him in both life and death cannot be overstated; ‘DONDA’ at times is disappointingly impersonal.
Like most of Kanye’s recent output, it’s a mixed bag, but when it does work it works well. ‘Jail’ features thumping guitars and a verse from Jay-Z worthy of inclusion on its own merit. ‘Off The Grid’ features a relentless drill beat and fiery vocals from Playboi Carti and Fivio Foreign who force Kanye to match them lyrically, making for one of the most exciting Kanye performances in some time. The Lauryn Hill sample on ‘Believe What I Say’ provides some light relief in the form of the bouncy, almost summer-ready groove which contrasts nicely against the rest of the broody tone of the album. Though hits haven’t been his thing for some time now, ‘Hurricane’ is the closest thing Kanye has to resembling one here, thanks to a smooth hook complimentary of The Weeknd, and an atmospheric beat with an ominous gospel inflection.
It’s in the middle where the album begins to sag, thanks to some monotonous backings and noticeably weaker hooks (‘Remote Control’/’Tell the Vision’) which lead the runtime to become alarmingly apparent, before strong features on ‘Keep My Spirit Alive’, ‘Moon’ and ‘Pure Souls’ further begin to force Kanye awkwardly into the background on his own album. He positions himself closer to the spotlight towards the final third, and the more vulnerable moments such as his singing on love-lost ballad ‘Lord, I Need You’ and the twinkling, Disney-like piano runs which build towards a majestic finish on ‘Come To Life’ are quite moving, leaving the lyrically sparse, but powerfully performed ‘No Child Left Behind’ feeling like a fitting ending.
However, Kanye seems not content with leaving the album on a high and derails it almost completely with four additional songs, all alternative versions of ones previously found in the tracklist, the most notable for all the wrong reasons being ‘Jail 2’ featuring two of music’s most loathed figures of late: DaBaby and Marilyn Manson. For an album with such a namesake, ‘DONDA’ is already disappointing in its relative lack in female representation over the 27 tracks, and so to also have Kanye join forces with Manson on the hook “Guess who’s going to jail tonight” baring in mind the array of abuse allegations he faces, leaves a particularly acerbic taste in the mouth. What Kanye intended by their inclusion isn’t immediately clear, perhaps it’s a poorly calculated comment on “cancel culture” (to which he is no stranger), a further exploration of his complex relationship with faith via sin and redemption or most cynically of all, a gross stunt in the knowledge of guaranteed publicity; either way, it’s his most baffling act of self-sabotage since he donned the red cap.
‘DONDA’ is certainly no masterpiece. Though with more than a few similarities to ‘The Life of Pablo’ roll out and release, is there the potential that after all this, Kanye could take ‘DONDA’ back into the mixing desk? If rumours that the label released the album without his permission are true, it shouldn’t be ruled out. As ever, things are rarely simple with Kanye West.
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