REVIEW: Flawed but inspired, “Donda” is a triumphant return to form for Kanye West

This is the blackout cover art for Kanye West’s much anticipated 10th Studio Album, Donda.

Fibonacci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This is the blackout cover art for Kanye West’s much anticipated 10th Studio Album, Donda.

Vinay Joshi

After an utterly chaotic rollout, Kanye West’s highly anticipated Donda, an album dedicated to the tragic death of his mother, has finally been released.

Although recording sessions for Donda began in 2018, it was within the six weeks before its release that the album really took shape. Through a series of three live-streamed listening parties, West played his project for packed crowds in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Chicago’s Soldier Field, improving each iteration based on crowd feedback.

Donda was released to all major streaming platforms just two days after West’s Aug. 27 listening party at Soldier Field. Unfortunately, it could have benefited from another iteration. Although dramatically improved over the course of three listening events, the final product does not sound like a final product.

West’s last solo album, Jesus Is King, marked his foray into Christian-focused hip-hop, albeit with poor success. The disappointing, unfocused effort of Jesus Is King casted a shadow of doubt over whatever West’s next release would be. This doubt was quickly vanquished after the first listening party, which revealed that West could make brilliant and innovative music while being rooted in Christianity.

The passing of Donda West, West’s recent divorce to Kim Kardashian and spreading the message of Christianity all function as the thematic principles on which Donda is built. These principles form a strong basis of writing for West, who has struggled to find meaningful messages to deliver for his large portions of his last few commercial projects.

Standout verses on “Jesus Lord,” “Lord I Need You” and “Pure Souls” display some of West’s sharpest and most consistent writing since West’s fantastic 2016 project The Life of Pablo

“24,” a collaboration with West’s own Sunday Service choir, is a touching tribute dedicated to the late Kobe Bryant. The heartfelt lyrics form a strong connection to the rest of the material on the album, specifically relating to Donda West’s passing.

At 44 years-old, West’s hunger to innovate and shift the current sound of music remains undying. On several Donda songs, West experiments with placing organs behind booming 808 kicks, creating a sound that is at once grand, trending and lively. A prime example of this formula is the shimmering, star-studded “Hurricane,” a collaboration between West, Lil Baby and The Weeknd.

With the impeccable beat switch on “Heaven and Hell,” the delicate, glistening piano on “Come to Life” and the warm bounce of “Believe What I Say,” the production on Donda is full of variety and surprises. At no point does Donda feel like a retread of ideas from earlier in West’s career, nor does West’s frequent use of organs feel repetitive.

In addition to “Hurricane”, West packs A-list artists all throughout Donda. The use of featured artists is one of Donda’s highlights. As demonstrated in his 2010 masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West has a knack for understanding how to maximize an artist’s potential. 

West places young talents like Lil Yatchy (“Ok Ok”), Fivio Foriegn (“Off the Grid”), Don Toliver (”Moon”) and Roddy Rich (”Pure Souls”) onto unconventional beats, but they end up thriving, each delivering some of the best performances of their careers due to West’s aptitude for playing to artists’ strengths.

It is not just the fresh faces that deliver standout verses. 

West consistently challenges experienced artists and newcomers alike to match his energy and focus. Jay Electronica delivers a thorough verse on lyrical highlight “Jesus Lord”, chalked full of clever Biblical allusions. 

The otherwise unremarkable “Jail” finds West’s longtime collaborator Jay-Z in fine form. Jay-Z delivers a sharp verse brimming with quotables, going so far as to criticize West’s wearing of the MAGA hat: “Told him, ‘Stop all of that red cap, we goin’ home.’” 

Despite the vast majority of excellent guest performances, there are some serious dark spots in the tracklist. 

DaBaby, recently placed under heavy scrutiny for homophobic comments, and Marilyn Manson, with several sexual assault allegations being leveled against him, appear on “Jail pt. 2,” one of the four “Pt. 2” tracks that contain an alternate version of a song on Donda, but with different guest artists.

The hypocrisy of placing DaBaby and Manson on an album rooted in Christianity is appalling. Although DaBaby rattles off a passionate, inspired verse, his presence still leaves a poor taste in the listener’s mouth. 

Manson’s appearance on “Jail pt. 2” is even more puzzling, with his contribution being limited to singing along to a couple of lines on West’s chorus. Whether putting two artists tarred in controversy on Donda was a confused attempt at a message of forgiveness or just an outrageous publicity stunt, West failed to think this decision through, severely diluting his message.

Another perplexing quality of Donda is that it is completely censored from expletives. Though this is seemingly because of West’s Christian faith, none of the listening parties featured censored music. Between the Aug. 27 listening event and the Aug. 29 release of Donda, the album was scrubbed clean, and the hastiness of this decision is reflected in the music.

The elaborate array of A-list artists on Donda could hardly be expected to record clean versions of their contributions on such short notice, so vocal tracks cut in and out around expletives, disjointing many artists’ vocal rhythms. The censorship extends to West himself a few times on Donda, leaving an awkward dissonance with the Christian narrative he has pushed for the past few years.

The most egregious victim of Donda’s strict censorship is Pop Smoke, the Brooklyn native who appears posthumously on “Tell The Vision.” Half-seconds of abrupt silence in Pop Smoke’s vocals are abundant and maddening, completely ruining what could have been a triumphant remembrance of a promising artist. 

Despite its serious flaws and questionable choices by West, Donda is a worthwhile listening experience. The majority of content on Donda is a true return to form after the utter let down of Jesus Is King while more than a few moments recall West’s mid 2000s creative peak. 

While not a perfect album by any stretch of the imagination, West’s passion is apparent from the first track to the last. What more could a Kanye West fan ask for?