I never thought I would end up writing about Kanye West.
After his 2019 release, “Jesus is King,” a half-baked hodge-podge of hip-hop and gospel music, I considered Kanye’s imperial phase — a peak of simultaneous creative and commercial success — to be over. While not a bad album by any means, its lack of creative vision and overall substance indicated to me that West’s then-recent infatuations with Christianity, politics, and architecture rendered him too distracted to feasibly create music at the level of quality of his previous albums, namely the juggernauts “Graduation,” “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” and “The Life of Pablo.” Between this and his frustratingly misguided politics, West gave me every reason in the world to not touch his music or public persona — in writing — with a 10-foot pole.
And yet, here we are.
His new LP “Donda” is a partial return to form for West. To my great surprise, it acted as evidence that West can release a sonically progressive and commercially successful record again. But, disappointingly and not so-surprisingly, “Donda” also acts as a return to the irresponsible and rage-inducing antics West once used to propel himself into mainstream headlines and social media dialogue just prior to the release of his projects. This familiar clash of quality and chaos, and its disorienting effect on hardcore fans and casual listeners is bittersweet: because once again, Kanye West is on fire — and in more ways than one.
Shortly after the failure of his bizarre 2020 presidential campaign, West’s presence on social media and in the public eye became increasingly sparse, especially after his divorce from Kim Kardashian became widely known. His last tweet was posted in early November of 2020, and by June 2021, West began to hide his face under custom-made masks whenever making rare appearances in public. These performative mask antics began to spark fan-wide anticipation that West was back in album release mode, as the masks in question were aesthetically similar to those West created and wore in collaboration with fashion designer Martin Margiella during the 2013 “Yeezus” tour. This buzz only began to carry real weight by mid-June, when it was confirmed that West had returned to Island Sound Studios in Honolulu, Hawaii in order to record new music away from media chaos and family struggles. Island Sound is the same studio Kanye fled to in 2009 in order to record what fans and critics regard as his greatest work to date, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” In what are now known as the legendary “Hawaii Sessions,” West and many of hip-hop’s greatest producers and rappers collaborated in the studio for up to 12 hours a day, over a span of approximately six months, creating an abundance of now classic music. These sessions were responsible for what many consider to be the greatest pop album made of the last 20 years, so West’s return to Hawaii gave major credence to the assumption that he was in the middle of creating music of similar scale and quality.
Flash forward to July 20, where the exhausting and chaotic rollout for “Donda” finally began. West announced a public listening party for “Donda” would be held at Mercedes-Benz stadium in Atlanta on Thursday, July 22, with the album being widely released in the early morning of Friday, July 23. To no one’s surprise, this did not happen, especially considering how unfinished the album sounded in this first preview, and how ramshackle the performance was in general, with West simply walking around the stadium in circles as broken snippets of “Donda” played in the background. Soon after it became clear that the album was definitely not ready for release, it also became public knowledge that West was paying a rumored 1 million dollars a night in order to literally camp out in Mercedes Benz stadium with his recording team and personal chef to finish the album. In an even more bizarre fashion, footage of Kanye lurking throughout the stadium during random pro soccer games while wearing his mask and signature Gap puffer jacket prompted comparisons to a streetwear-clad version of the Phantom of The Opera. With West fully returning to his default state of being a weird, attention-whoring asshole, I was fully convinced that significant work was on its way out of his camp.
Starting in the early 2010s, West’s rollouts for significant albums became just as chaotic and confusing a spectacle as the music itself, with multiple missed release dates, last minute ramshackle performances, and shit-flinging against other popular artists. The explicit reason for West’s attraction to chaos in promoting his albums is unknown, but it’s safe to assume that he believes all publicity is good publicity. To this end, two different release dates and listening parties came and went with no album drop, with some light shit-flinging between West and Drake peppered in for good measure. The final listening party on Aug. 26 was particularly wild, with Kanye building a replica of his childhood home in the middle of Chicago’s Soldier Field and then burning it down, while also setting himself on fire in the process, walking around like a madman ablaze before being extinguished by stage hands.
And finally, in his usual clusterfuck fashion and to the displeasure of the general public, Kanye brought homophobic rapper DaBaby and alleged sexual harasser, abuser, and pedophilic groomer Marilyn Manson on stage during this final listening event. West’s propensity to be a contrarian for no particular reason other than to enrage whoever he sees as the “establishment” in his moments of delusioned mania finally reared its ugly head through this listening party stunt. West might have considered this stunt a defiant statement against cancel culture and establishment narratives, but it actually manifested as a tasteless “fuck you” to both the LGBTQ+ community and victims of sexual assault. Even though West has the potential to create truly progressive and beautiful art, this moment still reminds us that he’s a tasteless asshole with a faulty moral compass, and “Donda” will forever be tainted by DaBaby and Marilyn Manson’s presence.
(I just want to take this moment to say fuck Marilyn Manson. He’s always been a talentless hack and his actual character is impressively even more offensive than his music. I might as well also mention that DaBaby’s boring voice has grown even more tiresome than before, as he hasn’t found a new flow since “Suge” in 2019.)
With more than 48 hours passing since the album’s final listening party and still no word on a specific release date, “Donda” dropped seemingly randomly early morning on Sunday, Aug. 28. And just like that, after months of buildup and controversy, Kanye dropped his most ambitious album since “The Life of Pablo.”
Even considering the controversy, I feel “Donda” is a very good body of work and a return to creative form for West. At almost two hours, the album sounds like a celebration of hip-hop’s current landscape and a fleshed out expression of Kanye’s fractured psyche, just as “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” did in 2010. While “Fantasy” was the culmination of what the 2000s bling era of rap had to offer the mainstream, “Donda” leans more into trap-influenced sound with its production and performances, as many of trap era’s juggernaut performers are featured on the album, such as Travis Scott, Young Thug, and Playboi Carti. What makes West’s celebration of this sound so rewarding is the palpable influence he had on its development in the first place. The modern trap sound of autotuned rapping and singing over airy-psychedelic beats found its genesis in Kanye’s once-misunderstood classic “808s and Heartbreaks,” released in 2008. At a time where using auto-tune to enhance one’s singing voice was seen as a form of musical cheating, Kanye’s use of it on “808s” saw widespread backlash at the time of its release, as it veered very far away from the traditional sounds of rap in the mid 2000s. However, once the late 2010s came around, it became clear how much “808s” influenced an entire generation of rappers who now rule the game. Tracks such as “Junya,” “Praise God,” and “Off The Grid” showcase West’s stamina in being able to keep up with a younger generation of trap rappers while also acting as a patron to the modern sound he helped make a reality.
The album’s artsier moments also match West’s peaks of creativity as found on his best records. On the track “Jesus Lord,” West showcases some of his most vivid storytelling to date, rationalizing poverty and the destruction it has on family. And on the album’s most stunning track, “Come to Life,” West gives what might be his greatest vocal performance to date alongside scattered, minimalist pianos and giant sounding synthesizers.
While the record may not have been worth the frustrating and drawn out release schedule, “Donda” is a perfect example of Kanye’s best and worst qualities colliding all at once to make a project simultaneously rage-inducing and full of transcendent beauty.