Kanye West is back to making great music on ‘Donda’

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Score: 8/10

While preparing to write my review on Kanye West’s 10th studio project, ‘Donda,’ and after proper due diligence —  listening to it on my headphones, through a speaker and occasionally in my car — I read several other reviews. 

Many of those reviews came less than 24 hours after the project’s release, which, for something that’s packed with 27 tracks, that publication turn-around is simply preposterous. Even two days after the release would be questionable. Three? Maybe, but even then, I don’t know… the thing has 27 songs! 

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My point is that something with that much content takes more than a day to digest. Not that ‘Donda’ is the most complex piece of work in the world. It’s not like reading Kierkegaard, or literally any other person you want to associate with painfully complicated work, but it does, just on a practical level, take time to consume. 

So, I overlooked the all-too-common clickbait manner of putting out content, one that satisfies news sites’ hunger to always, and without any trace of doubt, be first. I thought it was important because an album’s audience reaction and context is somewhat critical. It’s not critical to my opinion on the project itself  but it is critical to the overall cultural effect the project has. 

Also, selfishly, I wanted to know what people were thinking. And half of what people were thinking in their reviews, particularly in the mainstream publications I read, was the fact that Kanye West has put his fans through absolute hell. 

Whether it was aligning himself with Donald Trump, saying that slavery was a choice, running for president of the United States and many other past endeavors of which  there’s not enough time to detail, it’s been rough to watch the past few years. And that’s not to mention his more recent actions. Particularly in the ‘Donda’ rollout, West was at it again in his not one, not two but three live-streamed album listening parties. Mind you, fans expected the record to drop immediately after each one of them, and well, it did not. 

During the listening events, West collaborated with many fellow artists, most of whom I took no issue with. Some of them just made me cringe. Two in particular made me say, ‘what in the world are you thinking, Kanye.’ I didn’t actually say that, but the words I did say are unprintable. Regardless, the first artist was  Charlotte rapper, Dababy, who in the past few months blatantly spewed homophobic rhetoric during his Rolling Loud set and subsequently decided to double-down on that rhetoric. The second artist, Marilyn Manson, is facing a slew of sexual assault allegations. 

As I said, it’s been frustrating to watch this firestorm of deplorable decision-making. All the reviews I read were correct to contextualize ‘Donda’  with all of this information. It’s necessary to know in order to formulate an opinion on the project and it’s cultural significance. 

However, contrary to what a lot of reviews did after this contextualization, I can’t bring myself to echo the belief that this project is a bloated, incohesive mess with 27 tracks of disorganized thrown-togetherness. 

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Because listen, ‘Donda’ is a thoughtful construction of performance art that encapsulates West’s love for Donda, his deceased mother, West’s newly-found spiritual journey and West’s familiar opposition to the authoritative systems which make up the United States. 

So, the common thematic threads of love, spirituality and power pour through this record and produce some of the most ambitious content I’ve heard from West in years, since ‘ye’ and ‘KIDS SEE GHOSTS.’ It’s obviously not enough to overlook his  past insensitivities, but the high points of this project make me want to give it the parise it deserves. 

And to clarify, I say “performance art” because the ‘Donda’ performances, showcased  in the listening events, acted as a display of collaboration and gave added meaning to the whole host of artists who are featured on this project. In other words, West is the director of the ‘Donda’ experience and his collaborators are the supporting cast. 

And West does a hell of a job to elevate that cast. Right out of the gate, the song ‘Jail’ has a beautifully desperate and liberating sentiment. West screams out “guess who’s going to jail tonight” in the midst of blaring guitars, followed by Jay-Z’s veteran ability to always bring exceptional word-play. 

‘God breathed’ then heightens the project’s energy with clear ‘Yeezus’ influence. The haunting scream-like sounds in the background remind me of ‘I Am a God (Featuring God,’ which is one of multiple ‘Yeezus’ ego trips. 

The energy only increases when ‘Off the Grid’ comes on next. West adapts to featured artist Playboi Carti’s style, and Fivio Foreign, the other collaborator, doesn’t hold back in the slightest. He brings some of the best rapping on the album. 

The vocal performances on ‘Hurricane,’ ‘Jonah’ and ‘Moon’ are angelic. The Weeknd, Vory, Kid Cudi and Don Tolliver elevate these tracks with what are incredibly intimate vocal displays. In particular, Vory, on ‘Jonah,’ sings the project’s most powerful hook. 

‘Donda’ doesn’t come without flaws, though. There’s bound to be some duds with 27 tracks. ‘Junya’ is the lesser of the Playboi Carti songs. Where West seamlessly adapted to Carti’s style on ‘Off the Grid,’ he’s trying just a bit too hard on this one. ‘Remote Control’ gets a bit too repetitive for me, even though Young Thug delivers a strong verse. ‘New Again’ is a bit on the corny-sounding side followed by ‘Tell The Vision,’ featuring Pop Smoke, which adds nothing whatsoever to the project. I also don’t particularly care for the bonus tracks, or part 2’s,  at the end. They’re not in any way better than the ones that came before. 

But when tracks like the psychedelic ‘Heaven and Hell’ and heart-wrenching ‘Come To Life’ fill those gaps, I find it easy to ignore various shortcomings. That’s not even to mention ‘Jesus Lord,’ which I believe to contain West’s most raw verse since ‘Violent Crimes,’ which was a beautifully personal track off of West’s 2018 album ‘ye.’ And Jay Electronica, wow,  he just flows so nicely throughout ‘Jesus Lord.’ It’s a masterclass in technical rapping ability. 

So, ‘Donda’ is by no means my favorite album from West. However, it’s a sign that he can still bring a unique fire and energy, along with an interesting contemporary sound that pairs well with modern collaborators. It makes me excited to see what he has in store down the road. 

Nick Karpinski can be reached at [email protected]. His Twitter handle is @nick___karp and his work can be found at nickkarpinski.com

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