A little over a year and one month have passed since Kanye West first announced his 10th LP, Donda, his long-anticipated follow-up to Jesus is King. In 2020, Kanye dropped two songs fans thought were singles in anticipation for his 10th LP, but only one of those songs matched the kind of energy and sound his new album brings onto center stage: “Wash The Blood.” After about a year, fans got three different live stream album listening parties, and each time a new version of Donda, whether improved or rearranged. Donda is a new creative journey for Kanye that sees an album conceptualized and delivered with broader ideas; at the same time, Donda is a personification of an established career with a treasure trove of features, despite having its missteps.
Listening party after listening party, we witnessed the creation of Donda slowly, as Kanye tried different mixes, track listings, features/his verses blended into one. Kanye is privy to an amphitheater-like performative art as he has done similarly with Jesus is King and The Life of Pablo. Like them, Donda isn’t a cohesively linear album, as he tests waters by containing alternatives to the songs and allowing us to create our version, which may shorten the overall length. Donda benefits from having a conscious idea of sounds to make your version as smooth as most albums.
Donda has two sides; one where we hear Kanye and his features on production that is operatic and bombastic; another where he brings gospel elements, like the array of organs and choirs elevating the production and vocal performance from Kanye and the featured artists. It becomes telling with the features that appear in the first half compared to the second — Fivio Foreign, Playboi Carti, Lil Yatchy, Baby Keem, and Travis Scott, instead of subdued lyricists like Jay Electronica, Westside Gunn, and Conway the Machine, to name a few.
Many songs work in each half, and the few don’t work because of uneven tonal shifts. It sounds like Kanye is trying to represent a journey toward Heaven as he deals with his emotions, denial, grief, and past misgivings/mistakes while escaping Hell. These tonal shifts deliver new levels of depth from each respective featured artist. Fortunately, Kanye’s inclusion of alternatives allows for certain songs to carry different meanings. Before his Soldier’s Field listening party on August 26th, we received news of an exclusive Stem player — a device made for editing and mixing songs smoothly, though not an alternative — the performance made it evident why the promotion was there. Kanye introduced other versions of songs that day, specifically a longer version of “Junya” and “Jesus Lord” and an alternate version of “Jail” and “Ok Ok.” Instead of Jay-Z, the new version features DaBaby and Marilyn Manson.
“Jail Pt. 2” is problematic on paper due to controversial comments and allegations about the featured artists; however, one can’t neglect that DaBaby delivered the best verse of his career. Though one probably won’t understand Marilyn’s involvement, as his vocals are subtle within the chorus. Maybe it was for the sake of controversy, but a part of me wants to believe Kanye is just ignorant of the world. DaBaby’s verse, on the other hand, is a beautiful painting of his life and his rise from the ashes, relating back to the lord and family as his cruxes.
Similar to DaBaby and Marilyn Manson, some of the features may not be free of sin, like the previously mentioned, and some have remote eyes on them due to allegations and affiliations that may overshadow one’s opinion, like Lil Durk and Don Tolliver. However, separating the art from the music, their respective songs are fantastic and slightly tame and hollow.
“Moon,” with Don Tolliver, is a high-pitched choral-centric song that lifts the listener’s spirits to an elevated plane. The symphonic organs, eerie electronic beeps, and haunting guitar riffs emphasize Don’s performance on the chorus, in turn contrasting Kid Cudi’s lower-pitch melodies on his verse. The beeps appear prior, on the Lil Durk and Vory featured, “Jonah.” “Moon” follows a similar path to “Jonah,” as the latter incorporates the beeps and spacey traits to Vory’s chorus and each verse by Durk and Kanye. Unfortunately, I’m not that crazy about “Moon” as others. It’s too focused on a mood instead of being this luscious lullaby that can have it both ways. Every time it plays, my focus shifts to Tolliver’s beautifully haunting vocals and the guitar riffs while everything gets muddled.
But on Donda, Kanye is more direct, displaying an understanding of the world around him. His emotions are in control, and we hear him at his rawest and lyrically astute within a triad of songs that precede the “closer,” “No Child Left Behind.” These songs — “Lord I Need You, Pure Souls, Come To Life” — represent a sullen nature he has been showing over the last year, which he has been fighting; especially, as he speaks to his mother in part of the verses of “Come To Life.” So whether it’s showing regret for his behavior and lack of understanding or subtle context clues like the line, “Brought A Gift for Northie/All she wanted was Nikes” on “Come to Life.”
Donda has a lot going behind it. I could progress and break down every aspect of this album, but the keen one is the idea that one can make their version. As mentioned prior, the alternatives are personifications of an artist trying different things to find the right one. If you prefer the version of “Ok Ok” with Rooga and Shenseea, then make a playlist and replace it the one with Fivio Foreign and Lil Yatchy. You can do it with others, and at the same time, create one where it has a consistent tone with your favorite songs. It has been an evident theme throughout each listening party, as he tried different track listing orders, versions, mixes, and so forth. It isn’t unlike Kanye to make this be a bigger spectacle than expected, and he has done so with what he has given the fans, as opposed to the more structured albums of the past. But within this theoretical island and others is the notion that Donda is more than just a tribute to Kanye West’s mother; it is the legacy of an artist who has shifted the musical climate in hip-hop and pop.
With Donda being his 10th LP, it almost feels like a poignant mark in his career — he has been consistent and relevant throughout, despite negative publicity — it has shown a steady progression with his character as he finally listens to advice from others. Kanye wants to atone and be reborn, and he does so on the album. It is beautifully represented by being torched on fire for around 15 seconds as “Come To Life” transitioned into “No Child Left Behind” of the Chicago Livestream. It may not be Kanye’s best, but it leaves enough intrigue to keep returning.