It took over a month of listening parties, pushed back release dates, holing up in stadiums, reworkings, and overall strange behaviour, but today is the day: Kanye West has finally released his tenth studio album Donda.
The album begins with a repeated chant on Donda’s name from R&B singer Syleena Johnson and sprawls out from there. The LP has a massive tracklisting (27 songs) and runtime (twelve minutes short of two hours), tons of features and collaborations, and an overwhelming scope. Multiple songs have second parts later in the album, and the overall sound ranges from the autotune pop of 808s and Heartbreaks to the sparse stripped back edginess of Yeezus.
‘Jail’ features a verse from Jay-Z proclaiming the “return of the throne”, referencing the pair’s 2011 collaborative album Watch the Throne. Lauryn Hill’s ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’ is prominently sampled on ‘Believe What I Say’, but Hill isn’t given a songwriting credit. ‘Jail pt 2’ is the album’s 24th listed track but is currently unavailable to stream due to DaBaby’s team not clearing a verse. Following his unwelcome comments at Rolling Loud Festival, the rapper makes up one of three somewhat unwelcome additions on the album. There are also cameos for Marilyn Manson, who is facing allegations of sexual assault, and Chris Brown who was arrested for brutally beating his then-girlfriend Rihanna.
Frequent collaborators like Kid Cudi and Travis Scott rub elbows with new voices like Baby Keem and Lil Durk. West’s Sunday Service Choir makes regular appearances, with the collective getting a featured credit on ‘No Child Left Behind’, connecting the new work with West’s previous release, 2019’s Jesus is King. The piousness and spirituality is a feature of nearly every track, to the extent that Donda could be considered another Christian hip hop album from West. Houston singer Vory is the second most prominent voice on the record, providing hooks for tracks like ‘God Beathed’, ‘Jonah’, and ’24’.
There are too many tracks, too many features, and too many elements to digest to accurately proclaim Donda a success, a failure, or somewhere in between. The Weeknd appears on ‘Hurricane’ alongside DaBaby’s Baby Brigade bandmate Lil Baby and it doesn’t end there. Artists like Ariana Grande, Lil Yachty, Playboi Carti, Young Thug, Roddy Ricch and the late Pop Smoke show up, but the album is so feature-heavy that huge names inevitably get lost in the shuffle. There are tons of pop culture references, jokes, aggressive stances, and callbacks, but the overall tone of the album is one of reverence – Reverence for God, reverence for Donda, and reverence for West himself.
Getting through the entirety of Donda is akin to running a marathon. Like his new arch enemy Drake, West is creating albums that are LPs in name only. In reality, this is a playlist. Two hours isn’t an album: it’s a feature-length film. It’s part of the modern landscape of releasing music. In an age where picking out individual songs is easier than ever, it benefits an artist to throw as many songs as possible onto an “album”, often at the expense of the traditional listening experience.
There are some fantastic tracks on Donda, and there are tracks that drag the album to a grinding halt. For a 27-song suite, Donda is remarkably consistent, with a blend of gospel instrumentation, hook-heavy choruses, introspective verses, vocal modulators, religious references, and occasional flashes of genius that reminds us why West is more than just a walking meme at this point. For someone who will release snippets and joke songs just to troll the public, Kanye mostly dials it in and plays into his strongest instincts and talents. Namely, creating highly memorable releases that can live up to the incredible anticipation he builds by alternatingly acting like a bizarre shut-in and the biggest pop star in the world.
For the amount of hype, controversy, and intrigue that followed Donda, its release parties, and its multiple delayed release dates, the last thing you can say is that Kanye doesn’t deliver. Donda is everything you could possibly have imagined and more. It’s frustrating, repetitive, and unwieldy, but also fascinating, insightful, and highly enjoyable. There are occasional good-time jams, but the album mostly sounds like Kanye helming a ship that could crash at any moment.
The most impressive aspect of Donda is that it’s able to ride that line and never go up in flames. The album is way too long, and would have greatly benefitted from stripping away the glut of guests, instead, focusing on Kanye honing in on his mother’s effect on him. It’s self-aggrandising and self-flagellating. But in the same way that congregations build extravagant churches to honour their gods, Kanye has built a massive testament to his mother’s legacy, from a Chicago suburb to one of the biggest albums of all time. That’s quite a journey.