Since his breakthrough in 2004, Kanye West’s ego has typically been a strength for the legendary rapper, helping him blaze trails that few before him have trodden. It’s helped give us masterful works like the industrial about-turn of ‘Yeezus’ or the expansive maximalism of ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, and led him to make game-changing innovations in music, fashion and beyond.
Society might not like that he is unafraid to call himself a genius when he has created genius works, but that seemingly unfaltering belief and confidence in himself has presented the world with an unstoppable icon ready to push both boundaries and buttons.
But as West – or Ye, as he is now legally known – dribbles out versions of his 11th album ‘Donda 2’, the sequel to last year’s ‘Donda’, via his new Stem Player device, he is inadvertently highlighting another aspect of ego that can catch all of us out. Where once it was a tool, now it feels like a trap, and it’s rigged up invisible snares all over the songs that have emerged on the $200 player so far.
When indulging your ego becomes unhealthy, you allow yourself to believe that only you (or those who agree with you) are in the right and that you are on a higher plane of superiority than the rest of the world around you. It creates entitlement, feeds on manipulation and fixates a spotlight on your worst side, even if you believe that to be impossible.
There are points across West’s ‘V2.22.22 Miami’ version of ‘Donda 2’ – which seems more likely to be a work-in-progress than the finished album – that fall into that pattern. It’s most evident when the rapper writes about his personal life, particularly his ongoing divorce from Kim Kardashian. “I am the best, you hit the top / Wait til they find out,” he boasts on the Frankie Knuckles-sampling ‘Flowers’, later alluding to his 2022 Valentine’s Day gift of $100k’s worth of flora to his former partner: “Keep the flowers, send a hunnid thousand.”
But his grand gestures (in reality and in lyrics) feel hollow when he immediately follows that track with ‘Security’, a headline-grabbing, seething threat to Kardashian’s new boyfriend, SNL comedian Pete Davidson. You can hear the anger in West’s voice, which only grows stronger against the unsettling instrumental. “Never take the family picture off the fridge,” he warns. “Never stand between a man and his kids / You ain’t got enough security for this.”
In a since-deleted Instagram post, Kanye claimed that he took “accountability” for his social media comments about his ex-wife as she tries to move on with her life. ‘Donda 2’ doesn’t back that up, with West far from acknowledging he might be at fault in at least some ways. When he samples Kardashian’s recent SNL monologue on ‘Sci-Fi’, he conveniently only includes the parts where she bigs him up as “the best rapper of all-time” and “the richest Black man in America, a talented legit genius who gave me four incredible kids”. There’s no room for the following line where the reality star and entrepreneur joked: “So when I divorced him, you have to know it came down to one thing – his personality.”
Later, on that same song, West tells someone – Kim? The media? Onlookers around the world? – to “make a choice: oxygen or wi-fi?” It’s been suggested that he’s asking us to choose between his ability to breathe freely or access to the drama that is his current relationship status. What he fails to reference is that he is the one fuelling the gossip fires by sharing private messages from Kardashian, Davidson and other family members on Instagram.
Personal spectacle aside, there are other aspects of ‘Donda 2’ that could be rectified if he let go of his ego – even just slightly. Ye continues to insist on working with controversial figures such as Marilyn Manson and DaBaby, who appeared at the Miami listening party, or XXXTentacion, who appears posthumously on ‘True Love’ and ‘Selfish’. The backlash against such musicians around the release of last summer’s ‘Donda’ was strong, but has apparently been ignored by West.
It’s unclear if he thinks this is the edgy choice or working with those who have been accused of abuse (the aforementioned artists have all denied the claims against them) is his way of offering some kind of salvation from “cancel culture”. Either way, it negates to take into account that his position on the matter might be wrong or harmful, perpetuating a world where serious claims don’t affect men’s status and more suffering is brought on their alleged victims.
In the music and rollout, too, it might be better to take a step back. There is nothing particularly interesting on much of ‘Donda 2’. and a lot of the songs feel dashed-off and half-baked. It could be that they sound unfinished because they are, but it suggests that the rapper feels like nothing can damage his status as a legend of hip-hop. Perhaps he might want to rethink that – currently, the tracks available on the Stem Player are largely weak and boring, particularly when you mute the vocal stem and subsequently cut out the drama of the lyrics.
Sure, you could argue that giving insight into the making of a record adds a new level of humanity to the work of an icon – not everything he touches turns to gold, after all – but it feels like a strange choice to let us wonder if this is the real album rather than not make it clear that we’re being taken into the inner sanctum of West’s creativity.
Legacies might be difficult to build, but they can all too quickly be dismantled – and you don’t need to be a genius to see that.