Album: “Donda” by Kanye West
Release Date: Aug. 29, 2021
Run Time: 1 Hour 48 Minutes
Label: GOOD Music and Def Jam Recordings
If there’s one thing Kanye West has never lacked in his music, it’s self-expression. From 2010’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” to 2018’s “ye,” each album has felt like a snapshot of a period in West's life.
That's why when “JESUS IS KING” was released in 2019, it came as a surprise to everyone. The album contained West's signature high-value production, but many felt it lacked the introspection and personality of previous projects. (Albeit, gospel as a genre doesn’t lend itself as well to an artist's self-projections.)
But, two years (and one Kardashian divorce) later, post-secular West has found a way to express himself, while still singing about his relationship with the Lord. This is 2021’s “Donda.”
Lyrically and thematically, “Donda” is familiar territory for West. The title of the album is even a reference to his late mother, Donda West, who has had significant impacts on his work.
In composition and sound, the album is most similar to “The Life of Pablo,” where West explored the struggle between family life and the exuberant lifestyle of a rapper.
With "Donda," however, West pulls his inspiration from grief and failed relationships in his life which tested his faith in God. Similarly to “The Life of Pablo,” West raps about these issues in an almost relaxed way.
"Donda" is West's opus as a storyteller. The simple beats put the lyrics in full focus and will allow them to be analyzed and parsed over for years to come.
Rhythmically, “Donda” shares a lot of DNA with “808s & Heartbreaks.”
At the time of its release , "808s & Heartbreaks" was controversial due to how it defied hip-hop conventions. However, the style of the album has proven so influential over time, the similar beats on “Donda” could feel like a re-tread.
Several tracks still manage to stand out.
“Jesus Lord” is West's best song since “Saint Pablo." The song features an incredibly catchy beat and chorus which build to an emotionally devastating outro about fatherhood and empty promises, sung by Larry Hoover Jr.
West also collaborates with his “KIDS SEE GHOSTS” partner Kid Cudi on the track “Moon,” a nostalgic track that is a welcome tonal shift in the middle of quite an intense album.
Tracks such as “Hurricane” and “Heaven and Hell” are direct with their biblical imagery, but West adds a lot of theatricalities to the spiritual messaging, an element of the album greatly reflected by the shows and build-up to the release.
While West's three listening parties for "Donda" attracted lots of derision on social media, they had a clear purpose in the wake of the release. West doesn’t just want to provide music in the way listeners have come to expect it. Rather, he wants to provide a spiritual experience.
This also explains the long runtime of the album. The presentation and lead-up is reminiscent of an art film that gains momentum after playing a limited festival circuit.
The lack of focus and extra production throughout the project certainly resulted in a less cohesive album, but in a music world that is always desperate for truly original artists, West's commitment to his vision and ambition must be applauded.
After all, it produces some incredible music.