A day we almost thought would never come – Kanye West’s ‘DONDA’ out in the world, available for streaming and not just via sporting arenas in major U.S cities. As ever with Kanye, there’s a lot to discuss. Here are the biggest talking points from the hugely divisive record.
Kanye actually likes music again
For a long time, it’s felt like music has taken a backseat for West, who has seemed more interested in designing domes and venturing into town planning. So it’s a bit of a shock to get 27 whole tracks from him. But despite the varying quality on display on ‘DONDA’, Kanye does at times sound energised again – possibly for the first time since 2016’s ‘The Life of Pablo’.
Kanye occasionally brims with a newfound urgency on the record, whether it’s his defiant boast of “This Southside, and we outside” on ‘Pure Souls’ or his bumper-length verse on ‘Jesus Lord’. Production-wise, too, many of the tracks see Kanye in fine form. ‘DONDA’ at times harks back to the harsh intensity of ‘Yeezus’ with the industrial techno of ‘God Breathed’ and the dizzying noise-trap of ‘Off The Grid’.
But there are lighter touches too. West utilises his Sunday Service Choir to great use, with gospel flourishing scattered across the record – most notably beautifully harmonising with The Weeknd on ‘Hurricane’. There’s even stadium-sized rock in the form of Jay-Z collab ‘Jail’ and blissed-out R&B as he flips a Lauryn Hill classic on the breezy ‘Believe What I Say’.
It’s a sprawling tribute to his mother
Named after West’s late mother, who passed away in 2007 following complications from cosmetic surgery, ‘DONDA’ has long been billed as a tribute of sorts – Kanye has been very open over the years that he’s never completely recovered from her passing.
Ye samples several voice recordings of his mother throughout the album. On the title-track, Donda West is heard giving a public address and says: “The man I describe in the introduction as being so decidedly different. My son… I got a chance to share not only what he has meant to me, but what he has meant to a generation.” The overall effect is of someone rewatching old family movies and the words resonating more years later.
But ‘DONDA’ isn’t solely about Donda. Instead, it feels almost as if Kanye is exploring the most devastating part of his life, as well as his recent turbulences, resulting – just as life is – in a fractured, somewhat muddled affair.
There are Drake disses galore
One of the biggest talking points ahead of the album release has been the long-running Kanye v. Drake soap opera of a beef. Would they drop their respective albums on the same day? What does Kanye’s declared war-on-Drizzy actually entail? Is it all just a publicity ploy and the pair are laughing together in Calabasas right now? Well, maybe!
When Drake recently revealed that his upcoming album – the ludicrously-titled ‘Certified Lover Boy’ – would drop on 3rd September, things looked set for a head-to-head chart showdown. But instead of a 2021 take on the Yeezy v 50 Cent bout, West decided to drop the album abruptly on the last Sunday of August – sort of akin to arranging an after-school fight and then getting too impatient to wait for your enemy to even show up.
And, yes, there are plenty of Drake disses and clap-backs throughout ‘DONDA’. On ‘Ok Ok’, Kanye seems to hint at a betrayal by Drake: “OK, now they got me, wanna rap again / Heal the wound and then you stab me in my back again”. Ye goes on to parrot Drake’s own lyrics, “See me in person, I look like a ghost” being a reference to “Seen ‘em in person, I’m seein’ a ghost” from Drizzy’s 2018 ‘Behind Barz’ freestyle.
Elsewhere, on ‘Pure Souls’. Kanye name-checks several Drake song titles (‘Mob Ties’, ‘God’s Plan’) before throwing down the gauntlet: “Man, I swear these boys keep playin’ / We gon’ have to square up then / We gon’ have to send it up then.”
Your move, Drake…
There are some Kim K break-up songs
Don’t expect ‘808s and Heartbreak 2.0’, but Kanye frequently Kanye gets quite personal on ‘DONDA’ . Following the news of his impending divorce from Kim Kardashian, Ye’s exploration of a marriage in tatters strikes a mournful and reflective tone. On ‘Hurricane’, he looks back at how his hectic schedule may have been to blame for the breakdown: “Sixty-million-dollar home, never went home to it.” Elsewhere on the track, he raps: “Fiendin’ for some true love, ask Kim, ‘What do you love?’ / Hard to find what the truth is, but the truth was that the truth suck.”
On ‘Lord I Need You’, Kanye sounds almost nostalgic (“You know you’ll always be my favourite prom queen / Even when we in dad shoes and mom jeans”) until the stark reality kicks in. “Starting to feel like you ain’t been happy for me lately, darling… Remember when you used to come around and serenade me.”
But it’s ‘Come To Life’ that is perhaps the most touching Kanye track since ‘Only One’. Here, he sums up the Catch 22 of ailing love affairs: “I get mad when she gone / Mad when she home / Sad when she gone / Mad when she home.”
It’s world’s away from how Ye previously has delved into his marriage in his songs – for example: on ‘Pablo”s ‘Highlights’ he rapped, “Sometimes I’m wishin’ that my dick had GoPro / So I could play that shit back in slo-mo”, and on 2018’s ‘XTCY’ suggested he fancies his sisters-in-law. ‘DONDA’ isn’t quite Kanye’s ‘Lemonade’, yet it still feels rare to hear an artist of this stature speaking so frankly about failed relationships.
Jay-Z collab ‘Jail’ is an anthem
“This might be the return of The Throne” were lines every Jay and Ye stan has been dreaming of – but not really expecting – for a fair few years now. While we may or may not actually get a ‘Watch The Throne 2’, as has been reported, we got to be happy with the Hova and Yeezus reunion that we’re treated to on ‘DONDA’.
The prospect of a reconciliation between these two estranged friends has felt increasingly unlikely over the past few years – simmering tension that appeared to start when Jay failed to show at Kanye’s wedding. A reunion between the pair was always going to steal the headlines, but ‘Jail’ actually lives up to the billing too. A defiant singalong smash, it sees Kanye ready to risk it all (“You made a choice that’s your bad, single life ain’t so bad”), while Jay’s verse steals the spotlight entirely.
“You are not in control of my thesis / You already know what I think ’bout think pieces,” Hov raps, offering a bit more of a measured response to so-called ‘cancel culture’ than his counterpart might offer. Ye isn’t immune to Jay’s ire, though, with West’s politics coming into question: “Hol’ up, Donda, I’m with your baby when I touch back road / Told him, ‘Stop all of that red cap, we goin’ home’”.
For the increasingly radio-unfriendly West, this might be his most memorable all-out banger since his ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ era. Just do everyone a favour and skip the DaBaby and Marilyn Manson-featuring ‘Jail Pt 2’. (More on that later…)
Kanye ditched his best mate for The Globglogabgalab
Imagine being called up by Kanye to fly all the way to Wyoming to record a verse for his new album and then, upon its release, finding out that you lost your spot on the record in favour of, uhm, The Globglogabgalab.
Yes, Kanye removed Kid Cudi’s closing verse on ‘Remote Control’ to give a head-nod to an Internet meme from a few years back that made fun of a poorly animated 2012 Christian kids’ movie. I’d be pissed, but Cudi seems a little too zen to hold such grudges. At least we didn’t get the full Glob-core outro from the third ‘DONDA’ listening party in Chicago…
Features-wise, Kanye’s still a master curator
Kanye’s talent as a curator has always been apparent, from his choosing a killer beat in his pre-fame days as a producer to his uncanny ability to make alien-athleisure footwear cool. The sheer volume of guests on ‘DONDA’ is breathless, with over 20 names in the feature list – most notably Jay-Z, The Weeknd, Lil Baby, Young Thug and Playboi Carti.
Ye hands the batons to Fivio Foreign on ‘Off The Grid’, and boy, does he run with it. Elsewhere, Baby Keem, Rooga and Roddy Ricch all deliver memorable guest spots, sometimes overshadowing Kanye himself…
He’s dialled down the sermon a bit
‘DONDA’ marks a majority return to secular music for Kanye, which many of his fans will be relieved by. Sure, ‘Jesus Is King’ and the Sunday Service Choir albums were occasionally captivating, but by ‘Emmanuel’ at the end of 2020, it felt like that Kanye’s very on-the-nose take on spiritual music had reached its natural end.
There are still loads of references to God on ‘DONDA’ though. In fact, just look at the song titles alone: ‘God Breathed’, ‘Heaven and Hell’, ‘Praise God’, et cetera, et cetera. But here, it feels more like Kanye is less intending to preach his beliefs and is more interested in exploring what faith means to his life and how it has helped him through his struggles.
Interestingly, though, the only version of ‘DONDA’ currently available for streaming is ‘clean’, with no profanities – so maybe Kanye was being honest when he said that he was giving up swearing.
Rick Rubin probably would have cut half of the tracks
27 tracks. One hour, 44 minutes. It’s a lot, isn’t it? The length alone will probably be a sticking point for many to engage with the record in full. Clearly gone are the days when Kanye perceived seven songs to be the perfect album length.
As NME put it in our album review: “There is no artist in the world capable of making a flawless record that spans nearly two hours – Kanye included.” This certainly wouldn’t have happened if Rick Rubin, a notoriously disciplined producer, had worked on the record.
One of the most interesting things about the frantic rollout of the album, though, has been that it’s shined a light on Kanye’s creative process – what he’s decided to change, tweak and remove between each listening party. It has, however, also exposed that sometimes Kanye needs to know when to stop, and when not to overcomplicate things.
One request for a post-release edit, though: please release the full version of Dr Dre collab ‘Mercy’ already!
Kanye is still problematic AF
No discussion of ‘DONDA’ should come without discussing the mirky backdrop that has recently surrounding West’s antic – specifically his grim comments on the COVID vaccine (That’s the mark of the beast. They want to put chips inside of us; they want to do all kinds of things to make it where we can’t cross the gates of heaven”), abortion (“I am pro-life because I’m following the word of The Bible”) and a doomed circus of a Presidential campaign.
At his third listening event in Chicago, West brought out Marilyn Manson and DaBaby – the former has been accused of sexual assault and abuse by multiple women, while the latter has seemed unrepentant for his recent homophobic comments.
Both appear on ‘DONDA’, hopping on ‘Jail Pt. 2’, one of the final tracks of the album. And Kanye seemed hell-bent on them featuring, even when difficulty to clear DaBaby’s verse almost stopped the album from being released altogether. “I’m not taking my brother off,” Kanye said in a leaked text. “He was the only person who said he would vote for me in public.”
It’s fair for many to not engage with ‘DONDA’ solely on principled grounds, and these questionable guest inclusions doesn’t help the matter one bit. Shock tactics or not, there’s simply no excuse.