See also: my review of Kendrick Lamar’s latest album.
I’ve decided to write up a complete review of Donda, the tenth studio album by Ye, the musical artist/producer/rapper formerly known as Kanye West. I’m going to open with my basic claim: this album is enormously influential but also extremely competent and creative on its own terms. I can’t prove both claims in one article. I have previously considered music which I take to be inspired by Donda. But here I want to focus on Donda itself, analysing its musical expression, track by track. I will evaluate it on its own terms, while also drawing comparisons to other musical pieces of art, as well as less original or more derivative works. Because Donda is original, I think, in the most authentically true sense: it helps make the old new again, remembering what was once forgotten. For lyrical analysis of the album, I recommend Chris Lambert and Travis Bean’s now-discontinued Watching the Throne podcast, formerly @kanyepodcast on Twitter. The season concerning Donda is still (as of 3 February 2022) available to stream — as is the latest season partially analysing perhaps Kanye’s most acclaimed album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. So here I focus on the music as a whole — including lyrics, but also including the production and associated elements (principally: rhythm, harmony, melody). Here goes.
Track 1: Donda Chant. Syleena Johnson says the word ‘Donda’ sixty times. Echoing the skit at the opening of Kanye’s debut album The College Dropout, but with the words reduced to one, this track is not a song as much as an expression of feeling. The timbre and timing of ‘Donda’ the word is varied over the course of 52 seconds. It is a remarkably effective exposition of the album’s theme and inspiration, Donda West, mother of Kanye West. She passed away in 2007, a tragedy which inspired Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreak as well as the subsequent My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Kanye’s engagement had broken off, too, before 808s, while Dark Fantasy was preceded by Kanye’s controversial interruption of Taylor Swift at the MTV Awards — after which he was advised by a friend to leave the country, for reasons of safety. The song ‘Runaway’ is one background to Donda, and the ‘toast to the assholes’. But Donda has forsaken the earthly concerns of Kanye’s earlier work, with the exceptions of explicitly religious songs like ‘Jesus Walks’, in favour of a higher calling. Donda is the synthesis of Kanye’s moral and musical evolution, and suggests a new beginning for the artist, as the religiosity of Jesus Is King merges with the heady production of The Life of Pablo, ye, KIDS SEE GHOSTS, and other projects from the late era of his now-ended marriage to Kim Kardashian. Dark Fantasy was a prophecy for Kanye’s tumultuous 2010s, as well as a culmination of his work up to that point. Donda is not so perfectly balanced, but its instability may itself be a sign of the controlled madness into which Ye’s life has descended, juxtaposed with the religious calling to which he has ascended. The rest of the album is a search for some kind of middle ground between Ye the musical prophet and the devoted or casual listener to this eclectic piece of art, whose Zeitgeist is laid out in this opening act. The sound ‘Donda’ is repeated with both desperation, nonchalance, and soothing earnest. You can hear lips open and close as the words leave the mouth, until one last Donda is said with the confidence and delicacy that characterises the rest of the record.
Track 2: Jail. Opening with compressed electric guitar chords, together with a lead guitar solo that equals the melody of the song, with the counterpoint of Ye’s own vocal melody: ‘I’ll be honest, we’re all liars.’ But then: ‘I’m pulled over, and I got priors. Guess who’s goin’ to jail tonight?’ This echoes the dilemma in ‘All Of The Lights’ from Dark Fantasy, when Ye portrays a character who return from jail to see his ex with another man. But breaking this romantic dilemma, Jay-Z brings theology to the track: ‘Hova and Yeezus, like Moses and Jesus.’ The marriage of Torahnic and Biblical prophecy in this collaboration echoes Jay and Ye’s 2010-12 calls for a revival of Socratic philosophy and Roman politics on their musical works together — Dark Fantasy, Watching the Throne, and Ye’s multi-collaborative record Cruel Summer. ‘Jail’ ends with powerful echo-laden drums that echo the pattern on ‘Love Lockdown’ from 808s and Heartbreak. So the transition from romanticism to religion is complete — with the memory of neoclassical politics and philosophy imprinted on this dark age of music, encapsulated by the blank album cover, like the walls of a prison, deep underground. The message is that music itself is freedom, a candle in the dark. It is not the music that is dark, but the world around it. Donda may not be Ye’s best work, but it is one of his most impressive statements, and occasionally reaches highs that few artists could dream of approaching — perhaps even Ye himself.
Track 3: God Breathed. The throbbing bass line intensifies production themes from Rick Rubin-influenced Yeezus, where Mike Dean began his run as Kanye’s long-term collaborator, adding heavy guitars and synthesisers to every track he can get his hands on — as emphasised by his solos on the Free Larry Hoover concert (once on Amazon Prime) with Drake and Ye. The medieval vocals on God Breathed echo the work of Ye’s Sunday Service choir on Jesus Is King and their own record Jesus Is Lord, giving heavily choral takes on songs like ‘Ultralight Beam,’ the opening act of The Life of Pablo and Ye’s own journey towards humbling himself before deity, while also hubristically calling on his most recent post-Donda track ‘Someday We’ll All Be Free’ (available on YouTube and Genius lyrics after being posted by Ye first on Instagram before his account was banned): ‘I follow God so you should follow me.’ But on ‘God Breathed’ Ye follows the advice of upcoming counterpart Kendrick Lamar on ‘HUMBLE.’, to admit his own ignorance. As Ye says, ‘Don’t know nothing; I know this — I know God breathed on this.’
Track 4: Off The Grid. A fan favourite, ‘Off The Grid’ is a lot of fun. It’s a crowd pleaser — but we with all Kanye’s commercial songs since ‘Gold Digger’, it is also damn good music. The collaborations on Off The Grid represent the synthesis between SoundCloud rap and mainstream hip hop, a synthesis that now heavily influenced pop music. Ye’s flow is excellent, too, but the lyrics are more entertaining than exquisite: ‘I talk to God everyday, that’s my bestie / They playin’ soccer in my backyard, I think I see Messi.’ But then in a move that does anticipate Mr. Lamar’s latest record Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers, Ye says — also echoing his own ‘Yeezy just jumped over jump man’ (a Drake diss, before their reconciliation which ‘confused’ Kendrick, who admits he has ‘got some healing to do’) — ‘You not a real stepper, you can’t overstep me.’ I am reminded of Ye and The Game’s 2022 collaboration on ‘Eazy’: ‘How come I bring nothing to the table, when I’m the table.’ On ‘Off The Grid,’ Ye proves this quite clearly. ‘Only thing we pray God forgive-give-give / May God forbid-bid-bid,’ and so the lyrics continue with exhilarating bass-less synth production, until the ending of the song arrives with production-less vocals: ‘Some say A-a-Adam could never be bla-a-ck / ‘Cause a black man’ll never share his rib, rib, rib, rib, rib.’ This song is ingenious, and is a bop that contrasts nearly with the ballads of Donda, a synthesis of the club and the church, the temple and the tribe, the mainstream and the movement to found a new religion, echoing the line on ‘Gorgeous’ from Dark Fantasy: ‘Is hip hop just a euphemism for a new religion / The soul music of the slaves that the youth is missin’?’ Well if it is, this is a good case for it — but also a suggestion that hip hop may be reaching the limits of its expansion, with a new genre beginning, off the grid …
Track 5: Hurricane. Like Kanye West, The Weeknd is deeply impressed by Michael Jackson, who once praised Kanye’s vocals on 808s and Heartbreak before his own passing. The Weeknd’s vocals are now ubiquitous, and sometimes criticised for their less-than-divine subject matter. Hearing the Weeknd sing about God rather than women is in itself divine, and more apt to the angelic image he likes to present of himself. The angel Gabriel answers the call. And here comes Metatron with a verse to put all other verses to shame: ‘Hard to find the truth is but the truth was that the truth suck.’ And: ‘Everybody so judgemental.’ The Weeknd returns with vocals that drift over a heavily reverbed bass synth, with a percussive rhythm section that is interspersed with distorted guitar-like sounds, which end the song simultaneous with the vocals, drifting off into the night.
Track 6: Praise God. Kendrick Lamar’s collaborator-cousin Baby Keem adds some braggadocio to an already overconfident record. But his use of autotune echoes 808s and Heartbreak in a sincere way. And the production of retro synths is nice.
Track 7: Jonah. The atmosphere is astonishing. The vocals from Vory and Lil Durk are nice. The rhythmical bleeping noise is a nice addition. Ty Dolla $ign’s background vocals are effective. And ye’s flow is rhythmical and thoughtful as usual. The song is quite moving. This will be sampled for years to come.
Track 8: Ok Ok. ‘See me in person, I look like a ghost / You wanna come and then play with the G.O.A.T.’ Like ‘Off The Grid’, ‘Ok Ok’ is a statement of intent and a declaration of greatness that proves itself true with the excellent, angelic chordal production underpinned by rhythmical bassline.
The rest of the album is great and I’ll finish this another time. This is enough for now. Praise be. Good music never fades.