When Kanye made the decision to include the now ubiquitous lines from the movie Blades of Glory in the hit song “N*ggas in Paris” with Jay-Z— “Nobody knows what it means, but its provocative...it gets the people going”—who knew that it would literally sum up the entirety of his life and music career from that point—2011— forward. But here we are and because Kanye believes in the experience of Kanye, he has leveled that shit all the way up with the release of his 10th studio album, DONDA (so named after his mother who passed way in 2007).
Kanye, prior to the release of the album, took the visual album concept idea to a level nobody could envision and debuted/focus-grouped it in both Atlanta at Mercedes Benz Stadium (even living under the stadium to “finish the album” a decision that seems odd but actually makes sense when you think about it; if you want to make an album for a stadium tour it stands to reason that you’d test that shit out in a stadium, if you’re able to, anyway) and at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
Spectacle of Kanye notwithstanding, there is also a released album to consider here. It’s a Kanye project and while there was a decade where that came with fairly universal praise, his own personal leanings—whether intentional or induced by mental health issues—have turned him into one of the most polarizing pop culture figures in recent memory. Shit, it makes sense he would align himself with Donald Trump, an egotistical megalomaniac previously lauded by the very people who would come to hate him.
It’s basically the Kanye West story.
DONDA finally hit streaming services and according to my social media, it’s either classic or a hot mess of noise. And it has more than it’s fair share of controversy, from why-would-you-do-that features to lack of credit (or maybe not?) for certain artists. Hell, Kanye even claimed that the label rushed the album out. And Soulja Boy wants to fight him. There are a lot of terrible people involved here.
Again, Kanye is spectacle. But he moves the needle. Shit, Kanye might be his own needle at this point. And ultimately, DONDA is out and it’s a 27-track (ish), nearly 2-hour long voyage into something or other. Here are some thoughts about the album.
1. I need to get this out of the way because it’s been top of mind since I first heard/watched the Atlanta show, “Donda Chant” is creepy as fuck. I cannot listen to it ever again. It gets uncomfortably long at some point and it feels like channeling Candyman or something. Now, it’s the album intro. Yeah, I’m out on that. One time was more than enough.
2. I have a version of the album of the second Atlanta show. That version has made it difficult to enjoy the official, released version because I hate the track sequencing on the official joint. For instance, on my prior joint—which tracks with the show— “Moon” was essentially the opening record (after the “Donda” intro, which is not track 15) and that shit opened up the album perfectly. I don’t know, it’s like I can’t unhear the prior song order or something. It had much more of an epic feel. “Jail,” the version with Jay-Z, being the opening record feels too early. The point is, I have no idea why Kanye changed up the track listing but now it sounds like a different album and one that doesn’t make as much sense to me. I realize this is a personal problem, but it is a problem nonetheless. On an album that already seems kind of random in terms of its presentation and features, the sequencing matters.
3. One of my biggest struggles with this album is that so many songs sound the same, which is an issue for an album with so many damn records. I have never had to spend this much time looking up song titles because I couldn’t discern which song was which. The features don’t help. I’ve hear of most of the artists on the album but I couldn’t tell you a single, solitary song for most of them. Which also means I don’t know their voices so I can’t even say, “the song with Whomsoever Sounds Like the Other Guy” is dope. I attribute this to me getting old—still younger than Kanye—and his insistence on using so many of these younger, melodic artists as instruments. Sometimes it works—Kid Cudi is always an addition, no matter what to any record he has ever showed up on. Travis Scott, Lil Baby and say Roddy Rich work. And then there’s Playboi Carti. I mean, good gracious is he bad.
4. Which brings me to another (controversial) point: Kanye is the worst part of this album lyrically. And I have always been fine with Kanye as a lyricist. Is he Nas? No. But he ain’t Playboi Carti either. But here’s the interesting part: Kanye notoriously writes by committee. Every story about his albums is full of tales about any assortment of folks showing up to contribute words, bars, etc. and those pieces becoming verses we all know and love. Who happens to be in the room matters for Kanye’s lyrics. But what happens when he’s potentially in the room with Playboi Carti for songs like “Junya.” Maybe that’s how you get lines like, “born in Atlanta, not in Montana” which might sound dope if it was autotuned because then you probably wouldn’t even notice the actual words. But once you have to listen to the words some shit just sounds stupid. Writing by committee hits different when the committee is a bunch of rappers who couldn’t care less about words but more how those words sound. Kanye is extra trash lyrically on this album; he is ambitiously lazy.
5. I suppose I should invoke my own opinion here: I can’t say that I like this album much. I’m pretty sure I’ve only listened to this album several times at this point because it’s Kanye. I will argue til the cows come home that Kanye is a musically brilliant human-being. Even if I don’t love the structure of all the songs I can appreciate what he’s doing. He just does shit. He’s an artist, for better or worse. I actually think that’s how you get this features list; Kanye thinks he’s making some subversive statement and I just don’t think Kanye West is really smart enough (non-musically) to do that. He’s overly indulgent. The album sounds scattershot to me because of that. I do like songs like “24,” “Moon,” “Remote Control,” “Keep My Spirit Alive,” Jesus Lord,” “Jail” (though I feel more like I’m supposed to like it more than I actually think it’s good), “Hurricane,” “Pure Souls,” and “Lord I Need You.” That’s more songs than I realized, but again, I couldn’t name almost any of them by name. None of them make me want to listen to the album over and over again. In fact the only song I’ve felt compelled to re-listen to more than once were “Moon” and the version I have of “Remote Control” which ALSO features Kid Cudi. Point here is that I’m a Cudi fan and if he’s present I’m probably going to listen multiple times.
6. I do want to point out something that I think is unique about what Kanye does as a producer: the features list on this album is fairly amazing. I mean you have the Griselda camp (Conway the Machine and Westside Gunn), Jay Electronica, Jay Z, The Lox on an album with Lil Yachty, Lil Durk, Playboi Carti, Fivio Foreign, Young Thug and Travis Scott, among others. It’s a random whose who of...something that also seems to use variety in its favor. Kanye instrumentalized each artists to his own end. It’s also remarkably devoid of female voices, which I find curious. Shenseea is present, and the sampled voices of his mother, Bri Babineaux and Lauryn are there. And there’s a song about Kim. Maybe it means something, maybe it means nothing. But this album ALSO includes, controversially DaBaby and Marilyn Manson whose (alleged) woman hating seems well documented at this point. Maybe it means something, maybe nothing. Unemployed Pittsburgh nigga Damon Young wrote a pretty interesting Facebook post that included some discussion about this. I don’t really know what it all means, but it’s high-key curious. Kanye seems to make a lot of decisions fairly randomly and in the moment but he also seems pretty intentional, too.
7. I don’t think Kanye should have released this album, not conventionally anyway. I think he should have just toured it. Over and over, from city to city and leaned fully into the “experience” aspect of this album. I think listening to it after the spectacle changed the way the album hit. I know he’d have to release it at some point, I suppose, but Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) released an experience only via the Brooklyn Museum as an art project that has yet to ever hit the public and Kanye commands a much larger audience than Bey. I genuinely think Kanye could have toured this visual art, album presentation and it would be something Kanye would do so it would seem normal (for Kanye).
8. I don’t think this album moves Kanye’s Needle one way or the other for his legacy. The presentation of it, sure. But the album itself isn’t going to change anything. Like it feels like this is Kanye leaning into his God-bag, in a DMX-ian way but it also feels like the Jesus end is kind of superficial, too. I’m sure some folks disagree with that; I’ve seen some discussion on social media about how heavy Kanye leans into his religious views. Maybe he does, but I just don’t feel it. Point is, this album is just another Kanye album. It will inspire think pieces because that’s what Kanye does but I think more of them will be because of what it doesn’t do; who’s involved (or isn’t), and the rollout more than the album itself. Like songs or not, as a body of musical work it’s nowhere near as transcendent as Kanye the artist has shown himself to be. But what he is is provocative, he gets the people going.
9. Here’s the last thing, and this might be the most controversial thing I’ll say: One day we’ll have to reconcile with the fact that while Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak album is largely given credit for shifting Black pop music into this phase of existence that it has Kid Cudi’s fingerprints all over it. You could literally put Kid Cudi all over this album and it sounds just fine because this sound is Kid Cudi’s through and through. Oh, that controversial statement: Kid Cudi is the most influential artist of the 2010s.