“You need something unexpected,” Kanye West – or should we say, Ye – opines on thumping new track ‘Believe What I Say’. Whether we need it or not, the rapper is the king of unpredictability, as characterised in the lead up to the much drawn-out release of ‘DONDA’. In the works since at least March 2020, the album was originally meant to be released 13 months ago and has in the last few weeks seemed on the verge of arriving, only to not materialise.
Over the course of that will-he-or-won’t-he period, the star has held listening parties that have seen him levitate high up in the air, and bring out Marilyn Manson and DaBaby. He’s lived in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium to finish working on the album and livestreamed what seemed to be his final hours of graft on the record, only for him to keep us waiting again.
Even today (August 29), the day of ‘DONDA”s final release, it seemed like we’d be without new Ye material for longer still. Posting on Instagram, West shared a screenshot of a conversation with his manager Bu Thiam in which he claimed the “album is not coming out” if he couldn’t release it with a verse from DaBaby on ‘Jail’. Then, a mere six hours later, West’s 10th studio album landed on streaming services.
‘DONDA’, named after the rapper and producer’s late mother, marks his first secular release since 2018’s ‘Ye’ – something he vowed not to return to in 2019 when he switched to making gospel with ‘Jesus Is King’. While this new record features the beats, sounds and production you’d expect of a modern hip-hop record, though, West brings the two sides of his work – on-the-pulse modernism and praiseful religious joy – together as one. ‘God Breathed’ boasts eardrum-rattling bass and fragmented yelps piercing the track as West raps: “I know God breathed on this / I know he got his hands on this.” Moments later, melancholy gospel vocals enter the piece, cushioning the star’s bars and discordant production.
West’s faith is a constant theme on the long-awaited album. “I talk to God every day/ That’s my bestie,” he raps cheerfully on the Playboi Carti and Fivio Foreign-featuring highlight ‘Off The Grid’. When he teams up with The Weeknd and Lil Baby on the shiny, stuttering ‘Hurricane’, he adds: “I was up for sale but I couldn’t tell / God made it rain, the Devil made it hell.” Throughout he spreads reassuring messages of hope related to the big guy above. “Just know you’re alive and God’s not finished,” he tells us on the Sunday Service Choir-backed ’24’.
At one hour and 44 minutes, ‘DONDA’ is incredibly – and unnecessarily – long. There is no artist in the world capable of making a flawless record that spans nearly two hours – Kanye included. There are plenty of seeds of what could be good ideas here, and some legit great tracks, but had he taken a little more time to edit things, this could have been a classic – focussed, poignant and powerful. There are a handful of songs on this tracklist that are nothing short of brilliant and show West in introspective, thoughtful mood.
With ‘Jesus Lord’ he provides a moving centrepiece that lays bare mental struggles. “I know I made a promise that I’d never let the reaper in / But lately I been losing all my deepest friends / Lately I been swimming in the deepest end,” he raps over snapping beats and crystal synths. “Suicidal thoughts got you wondering what’s up there.” But the track is also wide-ranging, expanding its scope to include grief (“If I talk to Christ can I bring my mother back to life?“), hints at police brutality, the tragedies of racism (“Better have a strategy or you could be a statistic“) and more.
West’s voice isn’t the only one that tells these stories. He brings Jay Electronica and all three members of New York hip-hop group The LOX into the fold, and includes a speech from Larry Hoover Jr – son of the founder of Chicago gang the Gangster disciples, who was jailed for 150-200 years for murder in 1973 – about the devastating effects the American justice system has had on his family. It’s a phenomenally deep piece of work that moves you as much as it challenges you.
‘Lord I Need You’ is just as emotional, Ye seemingly addressing estranged wife Kim Kardashian over a minimal, heartfelt foundation of lightly bubbling bass and lowkey synths. “You know you’ll always be my favourite prom queen / Even when we in dad shoes and mom jeans,” he raps sweetly, but it’s not all so romantic. “Starting to feel like you ain’t been happy for me lately, darlin’,” he adds forlornly. “‘Member when you used to come around and serenade me.”
‘Come To Life’ finds subtle urgency in West’s strained, high-pitched cries of “Here go all your problems again / Three, two, one, you’re pinned” and “Ever wish you had another life?” It feels full of regret and desperation, but once again God is there to see him through: “God is still alive so I’m free / Floating on a silver lining.” On the downcast ‘Jonah’, he throws things over to Houston singer Vory and Chicago rapper Lil Durk to paint a portrait of isolation and being in need. “Who’s there when I need a shoulder to lean on?” the former asks. “I hope you’re here when I need the demons to be gone.”
When West brought out Manson and DaBaby – the former accused of multiple counts of sexual assault (which he has denied) and the other pulled from tracks and festival slots after making homophobic remarks on stage at Rolling Loud Miami – at his Chicago listening party last week (August 26), there were questions about what he was trying to say. Was it a hamfisted attempt at commenting on cancel culture, using entirely the wrong examples, or just a lame attempt at controversy?
Two tracks on ‘DONDA’ seem to make reference to that subject field. Jay-Z assists him on the bold opener proper ‘Jail’ (following the 52-second ‘Donda Chant’, which is literally the name “Donda” repeated over and over for the whole track), asserting: “Don’t try to jail my thoughts and think pre-cents / I can’t be controlled with programmes and presets.” Later, on the Lauryn Hill-sampling almost-banger ‘Believe What I Say’, West notes: “Don’t agree with the message / Don’t agree with the methods.”
‘DONDA’ ends with four extended or alternate versions of songs on its tracklist, including ‘OK OK’, Junya’ and ‘Jesus Lord’. There’s also a new take on ‘Jail’, but was unplayable at the time of release, likely due to West’s insistence that DaBaby’s verse not be removed from it. These takes aren’t vital or particularly insightful into the rapper’s process and would have been better served being saved for a bonus EP or extended edition of the album in a few months’ time.
Even the first version of ‘Junya’ that appears on the tracklist feels throwaway, West building a mildly fun but lightweight song around a reference to Japanese fashion designer Junya Watanabe. ‘Remote Control’, which features the Sunday Service Choir and Young Thug, could be a thought-provoking commentary on technology and its infiltration of our lives, but ends up being superficial, Ye dropping lines such as “I was in my hovercraft / Had another laugh” and “Got it on remote control / Like a CEO“, seemingly without much thought. Young Thug’s verse doesn’t even fit his collaborator’s theme, as he brags instead about “hopping out the brand new Rolls / Jesus sent me brand new clothes.”
‘DONDA’ isn’t just a Kanye affair, of course. It’s filled with guest appearances from big names in hip-hop, rising stars and characters from across pop culture. Some earn their presence – the aforementioned Vory is a delight on ‘God Breathed’ and ‘Jonah’, Baby Keem and Travis Scott elevate ‘Praise God’, while The Weeknd, Playboi Carti and Roddy Ricch also put in star turns. Jay-Z’s ‘Jail’ appearance is also a thrill, teasing: “This might be the return of the Throne.” Others, however, feel under-utilised: Stalone – apparently not Ariana Grande as previous credits reported – features on the title track, but appears in scant few lines and makes little impact.
There’s only one song on the whole record that West lets the spotlight belong to only one person: ‘Tell The Vision’. The track is an alternate take on the Ye-produced song of the same name that featured on Pop Smoke‘s second posthumous album ‘Faith’, West and Pusha T‘s verses removed and just the late New York drill pioneer’s energy left. It’s intended as a tribute to Smoke, who was murdered last year at the age of 20, and highlights a talent lost far too soon.
Of course, ‘DONDA’ wouldn’t exist were it not for West’s mother, and she features across the record, whether the rapper is working through his feelings about her death (‘Jesus Lord’) or including recordings of her giving speeches. On the title track, she kicks things off by cheekily saying: “What did he want me to talk about? Well, he said something a little bit dangerous – he told me I could talk about anything I wanted to. And you know, I am my son’s mother.”
While ‘DONDA’ certainly isn’t a rushed job, it could have benefitted from West spending a little less time on it and learning when to let things go. Nobody needs all 27 of these tracks, but dig deep into its contents and you’ll find enough gems to make his 10th album worth your time.
Label: GOOD Music/Def Jam
Release date: August 29