Musician, producer, rapper, fashion mogul, controversial icon — these are just a few of the roles that Kanye West occupies in today’s pop culture universe.
With over 20 Grammy Awards, 10 studio albums and a laundry list of publicity troubles, “Ye” has been in the public eye for better or worse for the past two decades.
This past July, West re-entered the spotlight after a calendar year of silence with a series of exclusive listening parties for his 10th Long Play (LP) “Donda,” named after his late mother who passed away in 2007 after complications from surgery. West has historically been close to his mother, dedicating multiple songs to her like the track “Hey Mama” off of his second studio album “Late Registration.”
“Donda,” originally announced for release in the summer of 2020, resurfaced in the news in a surprising fashion this June.
West rolled out the album after a series of three “listening parties,” during which he played evolving versions of the LP. Each was grander than the last, culminating in a final performance in his hometown of Chicago.
As with everything West does, it was shrouded in controversy. The arena sported a replica of his childhood home, a faux wedding with his recently divorced ex-wife Kim Kardashian and appearances from artists DaBaby and Marilyn Manson, who have both recently come under fire for homophobia and sexual assault allegations, respectively.
These appearances, along with a myriad of anecdotes detailing the harsh and unpredictable working conditions for artists and producers who contributed to the album, gave this LP a rocky start. With each missed release date the album seemed further and further from release. New versions of tracks at each performance also worried fans that the album would be scrapped altogether.
However, on the morning of Aug. 29, a simple black square entitled “Donda” headlined every major streaming service.
The all-black album cover mimicked the dark and brooding imagery of the final two listening parties, and at 27 tracks it sports the longest runtime of any West project. The length allows West to be inclusive of the entire rap scene, with over 70 features from cutting edge artists such as Lil Baby, The Weeknd, Lil Durk, Young Thug, Playboi Carti and even a feature from the late Donda West herself, pulling snippets from various speeches given before her death.
Jay-Z’s verse on the anthemic “Jail” marks his first appearance on a West project since 2012, and Fivio Foreign steals the show on “Off the Grid” with one of the strongest features of 2021.
“Donda” takes pages out of West’s last five projects, including industrial tracks like “God Breathed,” “Heaven and Hell” and “Off the Grid” which harken back to 2013’s “Yeezus.”
Soulful and cathartic tracks like “Hurricane,” “Moon” and “Pure Souls” are reminiscent of his 2018 album “Ye,” and energetic tracks like “Junya” and “Ok Ok” flash back to the chaos and ego-mania of 2016’s “Life of Pablo.”
The most impressive development is West’s re-harnessing of his gospel effort, 2019’s “Jesus is King” (JIK). While “JIK” was seen as misguided and ineffective, West has reinvented this sound in an incredibly refreshing way with tracks like “24,” “Keep My Spirit Alive” and the transcendent “Come to Life.”
Within the nearly two-hour project, West expresses nearly every emotion possible. From proclaiming himself as the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) on “Ok Ok,” to bearing his soul and the pain of losing his mother on “Jesus is Lord,” to exploring the chaos of a lost love on “New Again,” the album is a rollercoaster of sound and emotion.
West has once again teamed up with long-time producer, Mike Dean, to deliver a beautifully mastered album, incorporating a variety of synthesizers, distorted guitars and even appearances from The Sunday Service Choir to produce instrumentals that feel both classic and futuristic at the same time.
However, “Donda” is not without its flaws. At 27 tracks the LP is clearly bloated, sporting multiple versions of the same songs for the final four tunes.
There are tracks worth skipping on the album, most notably “Donda Chant” and “Tell The Vision,” which feel more like unfinished ideas than fleshed-out songs. Multiple songs feel self-indulgent and extend far beyond their necessary run-time, while other tracks could use another verse like “Moon” featuring Kid Cudi.
West’s rapping is not his strongest, and the simply strange feature at the end of “Remote Control” ruins what is otherwise a sensual and melodic song.
But as die-hard West fans will tell you, these quirks and moments of humor are expected from the ‘Louis Vuitton Don.’
Coming off the heels of two short, underwhelming LPs, “Donda” is a forceful reassurance that West still has plenty of gas left in the tank with his ear to the ground of the current rap scene. This inspired and well-produced project from West transcends controversy and genre, showing that even into his middle-aged era West can bring innovation and beauty to our headphones.
Sean Murphy is a staff reporter for The Review. His opinions are his own and do not represent the majority opinion of The Review’s editorial staff. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.