Photo By: Axel Antas-Bergkvist from Unsplash
With a whopping 27 songs making the tracklist and after weeks of unfulfilled release dates and evolving live performances in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Kanye West has finally released his long-awaited 11th studio album, Donda.
Released on Sunday, Aug. 29 and titled as a tribute to his late mother, the nearly two-hour record sees Kanye at his most unfocused and tedious. Luckily for us listeners, brilliance does manage to slip through the cracks every so often.
The album features a large mix of artists, including contemporary names like The Weeknd as well as rap veterans such as Jay-Z. To many people’s surprise, and controversially, despite the impressive list of guests, none of the featured artists are credited on streaming services. On top of that, there only appears to be a clean version of the record available, fulfilling the promise Kanye made to abstain from swearing in his music back in 2019.
The reception to the album has been polarizing so far, which seems to be the usual reaction to Kanye’s output since the 2010s. Kanye also didn’t hold back in creating a blitz of media controversy surrounding this release as he often does: from stirring up drama with Drake, to collaborating with DaBaby, a rap artist who was called-out in early August for homophobic comments, to working with Marilyn Manson who has a long history of sexual-assault allegations, the usual Kanye album release fanfare was not any quieter this time around.
At this point, fans appear desensitized to Kanye’s knack for creating controversy around a release date, something that hit a peak in 2018 which divided even his most devout fans when he publicly endorsed Trump and claimed slavery was a choice.
Donda sits somewhere between the religious earnestness of 2019’s Jesus is King and the erratic, gospel-infused trap experiments of his 2016 full-length, The Life of Pablo. Most noticeable is Kanye’s minimal use of drums, instead he often opts for a throbbing synth bass on the percussion end which, past the one hour mark, becomes stale. That being said, there is the occasional track that combines that classic Kanye maximalist production (“Hurricane”) alongside some bubbly energy and amusing bars (“Off the Grid”), briefly reviving what is mostly a sluggish tracklist.
Kanye’s emotional convictions are here in spades as usual, but the spiritual content is weakened by a lack of conciseness and no easily identifiable aesthetic. This struggle for identity was not missing on the psychedelic meditations that made up his 2018 collaborative project with Kid Cudi, KIDS SEE GHOSTS (KSG), which featured a watertight 24-minute runtime that clearly forced the artists to pick the best of the best. KSG’s brevity increased the emotional impact with its all-killer-no-filler handful of songs featuring spectral pop anthems taking on themes of mental illness and spiritual liberation. In being so brief, that record made each song standout as its own fully fleshed out idea, making it a top record during a year that already had some of the strongest hip hop releases of the 2010s.
Instead, on this latest record Kanye’s insistence on creating emotional affect over an unjustified 107 minutes gets tiring quickly. Certain atmospheric tracks hold tension or a central melody, but never release and end up sounding like they never truly ended, or rather, that they never even began. There isn’t much in the way of College Dropout-era charisma or the brazen braggadocio of his early 2010’s output here, especially after the first 10 tracks. Not that this project needs to revisit a vintage Kanye sound, but given this album’s length and the saturation of moody, religiously-textured songs, some higher energy moments would have contrasted nicely with the more church-laden atmosphere.
Nevertheless, Kanye’s creative production and willingness to take sonic risks helps to keep most of the tracks offered here from being completely boring, per se. Highlights of Donda include the biting vocal modulations that slice through the background choir on “God Breathed,” the minimalist percussive breakdown at the end of “Jail,” and the explosive hook on “Heaven and Hell.”
All in all, it appears Donda may have benefitted from a few more empty release dates to allow for further tweaking and, one would hope, some trimming.