After weeks of missed release dates, cryptic hints and controversial performances, Kanye West’s long-awaited tenth album Donda finally released Aug. 29 at 5 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. Despite having an unconventional release, the album went No. 1 in 152 countries and boasts the second-biggest Spotify debut of all time.
It helps that Donda was backed by a year of hype. West tentatively announced the album in July 2020, though he failed to release any music from the project until July 2021, when he held a listening party at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Fans expecting a finished (or near-finished) product were disappointed to see Kanye walk around an empty stage, playing demos nowhere near release quality.
It’s hard to write about Donda without mentioning all this context. In a way, West’s actions have overshadowed the music — mixing issues and mumbled filler verses sting even more when you know that some of these songs were recorded mere days before they debuted in public. More than just subpar performances, Donda’s greatest controversy is the inclusion of rapper DaBaby and rock provocateur Marilyn Manson on the superfluous “Jail, Pt. 2.” There’s almost no way to escape having prior knowledge of DaBaby’s multiple homophobic comments and Manson’s sexual assault allegations, which turns the song into more of a crass stunt than serious art.
That said, the 23 main tracks on Donda form a fundamentally amazing record. The minimal bombast of “Jail” breaks new ground for Kanye, combining the infectious energy of his “Graduation” era with stadium-sized guitars and an infinitely chant-worthy chorus. The following track, “God Breathed,” features captivating vocals from Texas-born singer Vory and an eerie two-minute instrumental ending that foreshadows the album’s more meditative moments. Opposite this vibe are songs such as “Off the Grid,” “Praise God,” and “Junya,” all rousing cuts with trap influences and standout features from Fivio Foreign, Baby Keem, and Playboi Carti respectively.
Later in the album, the tender “24” and “Keep My Spirit Alive” are chiefly focused on themes of religious devotion a la West’s Jesus is King, but here Kanye replaces preachiness with genuine affection. The penultimate track “Come to Life” is Donda‘s best song, featuring some of West’s most enchanting production while simultaneously tying together all of Donda‘s disparate themes.
If its 27 tracks didn’t already make clear, Donda is long. There are a few duds, such as the flat “Ok Ok” and confusing “Tell the Vision,” but they’re not unpleasant enough to disrupt the flow of the album.
“Flow” may be the wrong word here, as Donda’s track sequencing feels random at times — it’s easy to put the album on and quickly forget how long ago it started. Previous incarnations of Donda were anchored by the voice of West’s mother (Dr. Donda C. West), but here her presence is relatively lacking. Kanye himself is also noticeably absent, often letting features overtake him.
With this in mind, listening to Donda from start to finish can be a hollow, numbing experience. Intentional or not, this oppressive tone actually does the album a great service, blending with the minimal production to create an experience akin to floating lost and unmoored through the afterlife. Donda almost comes across like a haunting posthumous album, rushed with a bloated tracklist and various features, but exciting nevertheless.
This is especially poignant given Kanye’s preoccupation with his legacy, not only artistically but with regard to his future generations. The Life of Pablo functioned as an eclectic retrospective on Kanye’s life, and his next two albums were quickly-maligned attempts to follow up Pablo with themes of rebirth and new life.
On Donda, West conjures up images of his afterlife and a world without Kanye, alternating between giving a spotlight to a new wave of musicians and pondering the future of his family. On Donda‘s final proper track “No Child Left Behind,” to which Kanye ascended — literally — during his second Donda performance, West’s only vocal contribution is the repeated phrase “He’s done miracles on me.” Perhaps his work here is done.