Few names cause as much hype as Kanye West‘s – he knows it. So when West announced a surprise listening event at Atlanta, Georgia’s Mercedes-Benz stadium for his yet-unreleased 10th album ‘DONDA’, the internet had a fit and he sold out the 42,000-capacity – 71,000 in normal times – venue (and his similarly internet-breaking estranged wife Kim Kardashian was reportedly in the audience too, despite since-discredited rumours that the record sees him describe their marital home as a prison).
In true Kanye fashion, the actual event – which also streamed on Apple Music – doesn’t start until around 9:45pm, almost two full hours after the marketed start time. And it doesn’t take long for rumours to start swirling. Twitter users assume that Kanye was taking a nap, or procrastinating. Self-proclaimed Kanye fans speculate that he’s reworking some verses last-minute, or that he won’t release the album at all.
It gets to the point that even people in the stands start to talk about leaving, despite spending between $20 and $100 per ticket. I even hear that Kanye has flown in 2 Chainz directly to the Mercedes-Benz stadium specifically to record a verse for the performance. We’ll never really know what happened behind the scenes, but we do know what happens next.
Kanye takes to the massive stage, dressed in a powerful all-red outfit with bright orange shoes, reminiscent of the 1988 Japanese film Akira. Kanye himself is a widely known fan of anime, so it would make sense that he took inspiration and channeled it into his distinctive look. The spotlight narrows in on West and the performance starts.
To this observer, the majority of the playback feels voyeuristic: here’s the audience watching someone listen back to his own album on a massive, empty stage, in front of a giant audience of adoring and shouting fans. West does not give us anything – aside from pacing around the length of the stadium stage, he stays pretty still. There are a few moments of religious symbolism as he prays on his knees, but that does little to counterbalance the no-introduction, no-goodbye, no-explanation set-up. The performance simply starts, then just as simply… ends.
All and all, the Mercedes-Benz stadium does a great job considering that the stadium wasn’t exactly built for this kind of thing. The venue typically hosts large sporting events, so it’s lacking typical big stadium music capabilities, which gives the playback a blown-out, contorted blasting effect. However, despite issues with the sound quality, it becomes clear that ‘DONDA’, named after and inspired by West’s late mother, who passed away in 2007, is not a typical Kanye West album. West has described his previous, gospel-themed release ‘Jesus Is King’ as the “new me”; although ‘DONDA’ is not ‘Jesus Is King’, you can easily draw similarities between the two.
‘DONDA’ draws heavily from religious texts, concepts and ideologies, with West turning them into similes and metaphors across the lyrical spread of the album – not for nothing is one song called ‘I Know God Breathed On This’. It’s impressive that it never feels preachy, over-the-top or theatrical. Maybe it’s the power of the bass in this massive space or the encouragement from the equally massive crowd, but the religious side of ‘DONDA’ feels cathartic tonight.
To get a little personal: I was raised Catholic and even though I fell out of those religious beliefs, the teachings done stick with you in a weird, unexplainable way. Despite my lack of religious beliefs and my lack of faith, ‘DONDA’ taps into something that’s definitely buried deep inside me. I find myself fully embraced by each track, even though I can’t quite hear the lyrics (remember the blown-out speakers) and could never understand the situation that West was in (and maybe still is in) while writing them. I think that’s where ‘DONDA’ excels: the record was never meant to be relatable, but was made to share a story that is purely the story of Kanye and Donda West.
There’s a sense of closure around the album. ‘DONDA’ is confident, full of forgiveness and optimism for a better future. You can see this in tracks like ‘Praise God’ and its lyrics: “Even if you are not ready for the day, it cannot always be night.” Grief touches us down to our very core for unprecedented amounts of time. ‘DONDA’ feels like moving someone forward, past the stage of mourning and onto something new. For West, this has become manifest in a tribute to someone immeasurably important to his life – and for this audience member, that message was received.
That being said, from a technical point of review, ‘DONDA’ is weird. While boasting an incredible amount of features from the likes of Pusha T, Playboi Carti, Jay-Z, Travis Scott and more, each track manages to forge its own little universe in the span of two to three minutes. Superfans have already managed to put together a rough track list with rough features on each, as shared via the @TeamKanyeDaily Twitter account.
’24 / You’re Gonna Be OK’ (feat. KayCyy)
‘South California’ (feat. Pusha T, Tony Williams)
‘Junya’ (feat. Playboi Carti)
‘Praise God’ (feat. Travis Scott, Baby Keem)
‘Never Abandon Your Family’
‘Hurricane’ (feat. Lil Baby, KayCyy)
‘Moon’ (feat. Don Toliver)
‘Pure Souls’ (feat. Roddy Ricch)
‘We Made It’ (feat. Pop Smoke)
‘I Know God Breathed On This’ (feat. VORY)
‘No Child Left Behind’ (feat. VORY)
‘Go To Jail’ (feat. Jay-Z)
Each track sounds massively different from the other, but they all flow pretty damn smoothly together. From vaporwave-style samples to bizarre, repetitive piano chords, ‘DONDA’ goes into some pretty new territory.
The mixing incorporates some glitchy elements typical of vocaloid voicebank software such as Hatsune Miku, but fits into ‘DONDA’s gospel-choir interludes surprisingly well. ‘New Again’ even features the Roblox death sound (when a character dies in the Roblox videogames, they moan “Oof!” in a distinctive and ridiculous way, which has become a meme). Given the fact that West and Lil Pump previously released a track ‘I Love It’ while wearing square suits like those worn by characters in the Roblox game, this seems like a cool continuation of the Kanye West-loves-Roblox lore. Yeezy for Roblox?
Despite the audible lack of drums in a majority of the tracks, there are still some absolute bangers. ‘Go To Jail (feat. Jay Z)’ is basically Kanye’s version of a rock song – it’s poppy, emotional and fast. ‘South California (feat. Pusha T, Tony Williams)’ sees Kanye West and Pusha T going back-to-back with lyrical deliveries, each verse getting an energetic response from this Atlanta audience. It’s pretty damn cool to hear blasting cheers in the megadome.
Overall, ‘DONDA’ feels like a return for Kanye West in more ways than one. While audiences are inevitably going to be divided in their opinions on the album, this one wasn’t made for those critiques. West has channeled his emotions into a singular work, making it feel just as contorted and wild as the pains of loss and grief, and giving it a brighter resolution with a sense of solace. Whether the fans like it or not, West is finding peace in God and re-discovering the scrappy passion that got him to where he is now.