Newton’s second law of thermodynamics states that over time all matter moves towards disorder. That’s where it feels like we are with Kanye West as we come into his 10th album Donda: standing on the verge of collapse. And boy, what a view.
It’s been a marathon-like run-up to Donda; never has so much been funneled into a single release. On a spiritual level, this album embodies a reckoning with the death of Kanye West’s mother, Donda West, who died unexpectedly and suddenly from complications from surgery in 2007 at the age of 58. Even more so than 808s & Heartbreak, the album that Ye released a year after her death, Donda is a direct tribute to the influence she had on him and the irreplaceable void she left behind.
On a crasser commercial level, it feels like there has never been a bigger album ever. Donda has been in the works since March 2020. Its gestation has spanned the entirety of the pandemic, nearing release at the exact moment that arenas opened-up, club nights reemerged, and community gatherings were re-allowed.
Even on the peripheries, sub-narratives and stories abounded. The supposedly reignited beef with Drake, the paparazzi keeping tabs on West’s in-progress divorce with Kim Kardashian, the failed bid for the US Presidency, and lastly, the ever-evolving musical composition that constitutes Donda. An album that seemed to change every week like it is wearing the “scramble suit” out of A Scanner Darkly. Together we watched this enthralling and in-flux creation that grew and withered in front of our eyes. All before any music was officially released.
When taken as a whole, Donda’s roll-out is a spectacle that feels once-in-a-lifetime, one that touches all facets of the human condition, from music, to fame, to fashion, to grief, to hubris, to faith, to sadness, and to capitalism.
The biggest compliment one could give Donda is that across its 108 minutes and 27 tracks, you feel all of this. Donda doesn’t underwhelm, it overwhelms. It overwhelms like a new-born baby that has little concern for what you’ve experienced previously and what you have planned, forcing you to listen to its eternal screams.
To Ye’s credit, the atmosphere on Donda is more coherent than one would expect, with the mood best described as funereal. There are no bangers here, swear-words are blurred out, and most tracks progress at a processional pace, following in the shadow of the hearse that carries the album’s central presence, Donda West, whose strong voice is embedded within the record prominently and brings a certain warmth from beyond.
Most of the music that revolves around her weighty words, however, feels like it was hastily constructed at the wake, penned desperately and hastily to capture a moment before it is gone. Musically, it’s a red-eyed blend that unites the heavy electronic of Yeezus, the choral organ force of JESUS IS KING, and the elevated eulogies sprinkled throughout The Life Of Pablo. It’s a heady mix. Gregorian chanting consumes ‘God Breathed’, a twisted organ delivers a demonic quiddity to the beat on ‘Praise God’, and ‘Heaven and Hell’ revels in the chthonic devolvement from sermon to glossolalia. ‘Off The Grid’ is perhaps the most fluent fusion on the album, a transcendent revelry that the featuring Fivio Foreign, from the Brooklyn drill scene, makes his own.
It is when this sonic synthesis is cut with the ambition of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy-era Ye that the album reaches the apotheosis that it always threatens, becoming the album we all want it to be.
‘Jesus Lord’ is an artistic marvel, splicing together disparate threads into its near-nine-minute runtime. The abyss-gazing Ye finding salvation by reaching rock bottom, admitting “Suicidal thoughts got you wonderin’ what’s up there”, while a slow and clean drumbeat provides an accommodating canvas for what turns out to be the highlight of the album, an utterly spellbinding and mystical Jay Electronica verse.
‘Come To Life’ is another perfect collision, with Ye’s vocals the strongest they’ve ever sounded as he asks, “Don’t you wish the night would go numb?” over a twinkling, twilight piano. For all Donda’s attempts to feel anthemic and fill the arenas it briefly toured, this is the only time when Kanye manages to have a song with a heart big enough to warrant the venue-size.
However, beyond these fleeting moments of triumph, this is mostly an album of desperation, for the listener and for Ye, who appears to be yearning for all that he has lost: his mother, Kim, and unfortunately his flow.
Whereas before Ye would have elevated several of the lacklustre and clearly rushed instrumentals on display on Donda, such as ‘Jail’ and ‘Remote Control’, here he simply opts for lyrical platitudes. Perhaps nowhere is this more glaring than ‘Hurricane’, on which the reunion of The Weeknd and Ye (as well as Atlanta rapper Lil Baby) floats by without ever threatening to quicken the heartbeat. A damp squib if there ever was one.
The early uproarious R&B of Kanye is almost entirely absent here, with only the Lauryn Hill-sampling ‘Believe What I Say’ and ‘New Again’ vaguely reminiscent of the music released before his mother’s death. They infiltrate the album like lost souls, dressed in blinding white in a sea of black. Like much else here, they should have been cut.
However, despite the patchy production, inconsistent pacing, repetitive song structures, the album truly enters its entropic collapse in the utterly superfluous final four tracks. In particular, the effort exerted in getting DaBaby and Marilyn Manson to feature on ‘Jail pt 2’ is artistically and morally bankrupt, the resulting sound feeling even more listless than Jay-Z’s original version, which has all the passion of his intro to Fall Out Boy’s ‘Thriller’.
Instead of ending Donda on the cosmic high of ‘No Child Left Behind’, we end on this unappealing death rattle, and that just about encapsulates a release that is truly a sum of its parts: part requiem, part publicity campaign, part serenade, and part flex. You wish so much of it wasn’t here.
But this is the reality of late-stage Ye, where it is in his commercial and artistic interest never to release the album and instead live in the spectacle of expectation, to let the promises and tension build up, to let us dream, because the reality is far too unpalatable. The centre can no longer hold, and it was foolish to think it ever could.