Kanye West – DONDA: Review

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.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

DMX – Exodus: Review

DMX’s career was one to always admire as he fought against the odds imposed by his mental psyche, by unifying themes of blood and brotherhood, amongst others, like religion. He never shied away from this and allowed his music to embody everything about it, as it is with his first posthumous release, Exodus. On this final – recorded for – outing, DMX brings back that grit and grime of New York, without feeling outdated and nuanced with Swizz Beatz co-lead production work taking the driver’s seat and letting DMX cruise along delivering some of his best work since 1999’s …And There Was X.

When Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood released, it heavily contributed to the contextual direction DMX went about delivering his message, in his loud and sometimes aggressive demeanor. His bars expressed different sub-textual themes deriving from togetherness and societal views, like brotherhood – blood and the world around him – via drug abuse and gang violence. His dogs (dawg) are his dogs (dawg). Exodus doesn’t forget that and DMX embraces his current life and its direction as he tries to make his way back onto the scene. And fortunately the highs on this album overvalue the middling low points.

However, Exodus has a strong opening and a strong closer, with a plethora of solid percussion and great/classic features, like another rare presence of Jay-Z and Nas on one track and a phenomenal posse cut with The Lox. On “Bath Salts” DMX comes at it with a different idea and focuses on the context of the song in that way, opposed to Jay-Z who is just casually flexing his riches without feeling refreshing. It retreads a lot of what he raps about recently, without the creativity. It could be because it has been around in rough form for 2012’s Life Is Good by Nas. Amongst them, the varying features of classic artists and newcomers bring unique ranges in its sonic structure.

From the construct of the Lil Wayne featured “Dog’s Out,” where the chorus feels middle of the pack and less infectious than Lil Wayne’s flows, and the unique inclusion of Bono on “Skyscrapers,” it leaves room for some admiration when listening to the rhyme scheme in the verses, but not everything hits the landing. Wayne and DMX are solid, but the production feels a little basic and one dimensional, further losing sight of the bigger scope. There are moments where the production comes across bombastic and one-note like the honest, but bland “Money Money Money” with Memphis rapper Moneybag Yo. Along with DMX there are some solid rap bars here and there, and ultimately deters into mediocrity. You appreciate the direct approach, despite it getting minimally overbearing in the spiritual content at this point, and other times he delivers it beautifully.

“That’s My Dog” is the title of the posse cut that opens Exodus with a vibrant and gritty New York flair to light the flames for DMX’s last waltz. Many of the tracks evoke a production akin to the rooted NY aggression and rawness that made DMX such a profound name in the music world in the late 90s. His first came as an unlikely superstar after the tragic deaths of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G., with that raw dog energy bringing a new energy to the summer in both coasts. The transcendent transition from that to philosophizing on others made him this unique first in hip-hop. This happens as the album starts to close with “Letter To My Son” and “Prayer,” which evoke teary moments from the listener, as DMX delivers a letter to his five year old son Exodus, who will only know his father from brief memories and from music, and a final prayer. This final prayer comes from DMX reciting the lessons learned from his wrong and the future we hold as we mold society to see the truth.

DMX has always demonstrated this demeanor to be more of an amalgamation of his emotions being circumvented into disdain and levying that anger with the bass-heavy production akin to Swizz Beatz style. Swizz Beatz comes in to flex that creativity with some slight nuance with the over abundant bass overlaying the hypnotic percussion and further defining what filled the void in New York Hip-Hop at their early peak, but with a modern twist. There are moments where it’s hard to define the direction of the production, outside of a few notable Swizz Beatz commonalities, like the melodic switches in the instrumental for the hook and more. This can be hit or miss at times, but it’s usually this breath of modern fresh air for X and the constant fluidity of the beats from start to finish really identifies the music DMX always had prepped for this major release, the first since 2012’s Undisputed.

Exodus is a beautiful swan song, as we hear DMX’s lasting partial words, and not his last, as he transcends into being one of Hip-Hop new angels, watching over us and the game. Swizz Beatz gives us a remnant of the past, while keeping it fresh for the times as X delivers some of his best work in some time. We’ll miss you X.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

Coloring Book At 5 – A Turning Point in Chance The Rapper’s Artistry

Coloring Book was a turning point for Chance the Rapper in many ways, but one aspect of it comes from the inconsistent quality of performances he has delivered as afterwards, as a featured artist and on parts of his follow-up The Big Day. He showed promise of bigger and more audacious pastures of amazing music, but his meteoric rise at this point fizzled in a quick minute, as the hype he was bringing for his follow-up didn’t have the same reaction as Coloring Book.

The idea of someone having one hell of a four year span and not continuing in peak form isn’t the most uncommon thing, but what Chance delivered after Coloring Book became a severe afterthought of rushed material without any sense of a widened direction of themes and production. So as it sneaks its way at the 5 year mark, you’re almost aghast from how much Chance has sort of changed in the overall blueprint he creates from; as well as wondering how his path went from Coloring Book to appearing on big pop features. But Coloring Book is more than just the music and its place in history, at what people thought was going to eventually be a music streaming war; it has charismatic and colorful flows and vibrant soulful-gospel hip-hop, unlike the projects he’s released before and after.

Chance has always been known for his broken down slow flows and his jubilantly cocky fun ones, but whenever he made certain – topical tracks or came on as a feature, the former flow style came across as hollow and less engaging than before. Many of these recent inconsistencies from Chance have derived from features on topical or trendy tracks made by others, like the boring and typical flex verse on “I’m the One” by DJ Khaled or the bland and mediocre flow on “Bad Idea” with Cordae.

These inconsistent performances have been a little more of a common trait of his post Coloring Book work. It’s almost as if only God or gospel related tracks breach his brain with enough inspiration to deliver good verses with better flows. Retroactively it starts to become more apparent how lackadaisical the verbiage in the verses can be. It doesn’t have that metaphoric and analogical virtuoso where it makes you want to go back and think about what you heard, as opposed to going back for the melodies – rhythmic structure – and production. And it doesn’t have as much impact.

However, some of us have known that Chance isn’t the most astounding lyricist, and most times he comes off as pedestrian. His direct approach to delivering his messages has always been masked by his colorful and vibrant flows over delicate soulful and jazz-gospel production; it makes you get lost in his music. That wasn’t the case on The Big Day, where the creativity stretched thin and he delivered these weird and janky flows and poor rhythmic patterns, though it wasn’t totally clad. This isn’t to discredit his work as a songwriter, as he has shown competency in his rhythmic structure and phrasing. Both #10Day and Acid Rap brought about something different as he dove deep into his subconscious with his own brand of drug-infused hip hop. And what he brought on Coloring Book was a complete 180 from those mixtapes, especially with the colorful flows that I will talk about below.


Similar to the opening to Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, Coloring Book’s intro comes about with a concoction of soulful gospel performance, as a backing vocal layer and more, from Chicago’s Children Choir and Kanye West; along with exuberant verses detailing the strength deriving from the experiences throughout his life and inflecting that confident bravado flow.

Chance The Rapper came in with poise and confidence when the marketing for Coloring Book began. He knew in his mind this was going to be his big splash on the pop charts after a taste of the space in his early ascension in popularity. It may be why many, including myself, found the mixtape this beautiful cohesion of production, melodies, and flows, deriving from the growth he has had as an artist.

From the dark-like production in “Mixtape,” to a vibrant and jubilant “Angels,” and closing on a slow tempo dance track in “Juke Jam,” the way these tracks and others transition have shown a constant with ambitious flows; as well as the quality of flows from his featured artists who aren’t as “proven” like Young Thug, Lil Yatchy, and Noname, as opposed to 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne on “No Problem.” His flows on other tracks range from the rhythmically slow and emotional on “Blessings,” and the infectiously rejoicing on “Finish Line.”

There is “All Night,” which is a different take on his past cocky and poppy-fun flows that we’ve heard from past songs like “Good Ass Intro” and “Sunday Candy.” Beyond the many visceral flows, Coloring Book brought unique verses from the themes and concept behind the songs. Like on the aforementioned “Mixtape,” which has the artists breaking apart their feelings from the reaction and success deriving from mixtapes; even though they were just coming off the tail end of the heightened mixtape era (DatPiff).

Other themes range from faith and growing up southside of Chicago, amongst others. “Summer Friends,” for example, tells a metaphoric perspective about the truth he learned as a kid growing up, wherein friendships still have a chance of containing tragic ends. He attributes gang violence and drug addiction as a problem; specifically in the former, which heightens in the summer when school is out and sometimes an innocent life is gone because of it.

Chance’s flows have always been one of his two strong points, with the other being his ear for music. On Coloring Book these flows carry a lot of emotional and engaging weight, while other times it’s infectiously fun or distraught and heart broken. You listen and it hits you; track after track there is a lot of depth and sonic consistency that listening to most things on The Big Day, in a way, leaves you disheartened.

However, we remember Coloring Book as Chance The Rapper’s most profound work to date and a significant turning point in an aspect of his artistry, which has been a strong suit. It’s Chance at the peak of his apex, and we’ll be patiently waiting for him to deliver something from somewhere deeper in his heart and not from the corner of forced trendy styles and features.