Donda review: Kanye West's album is personal, grand, yet complicated

Kanye West has overwritten and overshared even by his own standards for Donda

Anurag Tagat August 31, 2021 08:37:50 IST
Donda review: Kanye West's album is personal, grand, yet complicated

Kanye West appearing at an album playback event this month. Photograph: BFA/YEEZY

It’s a truth widely acknowledged that if you’re Kanye West, you can pretty much do anything. Whether it means you include God as a featured artist on your song (called ‘I Am a God’ off 2013’s Yeezus) or call on saxophone great Kenny G (‘Use This Gospel’ from his 2019 album Jesus Is King) or sit in a stadium and host listening parties for an album called Donda.

Elaborate sets, a revolving door of musicians (some of whom didn’t make it to the final version of Kanye’s 10th album) and 27 tracks that were constantly tinkered with – only Kanye West can make a record like Donda. It clocks in at an hour and 48 minutes, which is certainly a laborious listen by any standard. There are barely any fillers on Donda – apart from ‘Donda Chant’ which opens the album. That means there’s meaning, emotion and intent buried into each and every word and beat, sent out into the world (after multiple delays and missing deadlines so much that West still said his label, Universal Music Group, went ahead to release the album without his approval).

At the end of several listens in different sittings, despite what other reviews say, Donda is without a doubt one of West’s most grandiose projects. It arrives in the midst of a pandemic no less, but it works because West doesn’t lose his grittiness or the edge that he’s sharpened over nearly two decades now. Over the sound of a thundering riff on ‘Jail’, we hear Jay-Z return to share mic duties with West for the first time since their insane 2011 album Watch The Throne. We don’t know what kind of beat HOV was originally given, but it’s safe to say he delivers without flinching.

The first six songs on Donda really pack a punch like you’d expect – ‘God Breathed’ is that obsessive side of Kanye coming to the front, while ‘Off The Grid’ is instant-hit material thanks to features with rappers Fivio Foreign and Playboi Carti, plus a passing reference to footballer Lionel Messi. On ‘Hurricane’ (not related to his 2010 collaboration ‘Hurricane 2.0’ with alternative group 30 Seconds To Mars), there’s a suitably charged up atmosphere with a slick assist from The Weeknd and Lil Baby. It’s among the oldest West songs that were expected to be on Donda and it does not disappoint.

Donda review Kanye Wests album is personal grand yet complicated

Kanye West is seen at ‘DONDA by Kanye West’ listening event at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on 22 July, 2021 in Atlanta | Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Universal Music Group

Another one of the earliest songs teased by West was ‘Believe What I Say’, a club-friendly return to form for the rap artist who gets everyone grooving. Among the first few tracks on the list which pack a punch is ‘Praise God’, featuring rap heavyweight Travis Scott and one of hip-hop’s current rising stars, Baby Keem. It’s an arena-sized song that also keeps the lyrics deeply personal and hard-hitting, which has always been a recipe for success in hip-hop.

With the larger picture in mind, Donda takes its name from West’s mother, who passed away in 2007. Like with Jesus Is King, gospel and the rapper’s Christian faith is a reoccurring theme on Donda, while there are plenty of sonic nods to choral arrangements and the use of organ. He addresses his personal life and the divorce from Kim Kardashian on ‘Come to Life’, the piano-driven composition trying to add poignancy to West’s introspective raps.

Knowing the run-up the album and keeping fans on tenterhooks with questions of ‘Will He? Won’t He?’ up in the air, the final version of Donda paints a picture of just how laborious it’s been for West to make this album. Amidst a run for US President, divorce, mental health issues and the expected erratic creative processes, West has had a tumultuous few years and clearly draws from all of those experiences on Donda. But then, how much is too much? West has overwritten and overshared even by his own standards.

Where his previous albums have been just over an hour-long – like the masterfully crafted, game-changing The Life of Pablo in 2016 – to put out an album that’s nearly two hours in 2021, that too in the hip-hop game, is a risk.

West is the living embodiment of brash, overambitious decisions and that comes through in some senses on Donda. It’s not that there are fully weak songs, it’s just that these 24 tracks don’ all work together necessarily.

Acting as a captain who’s also the team’s coach, West brings collaborators in, takes some verses out, with the history of this album already being so public via the listening sessions that people can spot the difference. Songs like ‘Tell The Vision’ solely exist as a tribute to late Brooklyn drill rapper Pop Smoke, but their place in the grander scheme of things doesn’t really come through.

Donda is a complicated listen and not an easy one by any means. If you think there’s a reward for one’s perseverance, the short answer is no, because the message of catharsis feels lost somewhere by the middle of the record. The longer answer is a possible yes, but that’s if you give West plenty of your time and attention over the next few months, spinning Donda over and over.

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