Prelude: Many of you know that I am a major fan of Kanye West. He is arguably the greatest musical artist of the century. However, even the biggest Kanye fans know that, Kids See Ghosts aside, Kanye’s discography has taken a significant dip since The Life of Pablo. And yet Donda—a major upgrade from both Ye and Jesus is King)—is an exciting sign that the creative genius & madman isn’t “finished” yet. Donda is a lot better than many critics led us to think. The problem is that many critic “reviews” were written before the album came out; they had already made up their mind. Don’t forget the lazy “critic” who gave Donda 0 stars out of 5 (which massively reduced its Metacritic score and thus the perceived range of “acceptable ratings”) on the sole basis of the inclusion of a controversial artist as a background vocalist on one chorus of one bonus track. But Donda is, despite its flaws that were so duly noted, a worthy achievement.
Now that I’ve gotten my rant-filled prelude out of the way, let’s get to the music: Donda. The 27-song tracklist, spanning over 1 hour and 45 minutes, is vast. It is filled with high-profile features from Jay-Z, Kid Cudi, The Weeknd, Travis Scott, Lil Baby, etc. and an equally herculean supply of producers. Unsurprisingly, it has parts that are unnecessary. But, as I hinted, you’ll also hear very interesting things that can’t be found anywhere else. This is particularly evident in the first half of the tracklist. In my opinion, every single song in the opening half of Donda is strong (except for the very first track, “Donda Chant,” which consists solely of Kanye’s mother, Donda, repeatedly saying her name—one that I always skip despite its obvious importance to Kanye). And though the LP wanes a bit in the latter half, it never loses my interest. Songs like “Jail” and the mercurial “Off The Grid” draw you in—the latter a heavy-hitting trap rap hit with creative production and a hard beat. Songs like the smooth, impressive “Hurricane” keep you hooked. Then “Praise God,” “Jonah,” “Ok Ok,” “Junya,” and “Believe What I Say” continue the momentum. And somehow that’s just the first third of Donda.
While the second third of the album doesn’t reek of quite as much star power, its sonically ambitious nature endears. Additionally, this section of Donda allows you to relax as a listener with more easygoing music. Songs like “24” and “Remote Control” slow things down while mixing synthesizer work, choirs, wise deployments of the piano, and other classical music elements. Then we meet the song “Moon,” which (featuring Kid Cudi) stands out as one of the album’s greats despite its slow nature. A meditative track, it truly makes you feel at peace, as if you’re slowly ascending into the heaven Kanye paints (even if you strongly disagree with Kanye’s religious & political views the way I do). And let me reiterate: The gospel elements of Donda are worthy of listening even if, as I hinted, you’re not interested in religion. This is evident in the next song, “Heaven and Hell,” and it only escalates in “Keep My Spirit Alive” and “Jesus Lord,” which are two high points despite moving away from the “rap” focus (particularly “Jesus Lord,” a 9-minute song that blew me away while also evoking tears via intimate memories from the lives of Kanye and his tortured late mother, whom he loved so emphatically).
The last ten songs—particularly the last four, which are “part 2” bonus tracks that continue from the end of a few select songs—constitute the weakest stretch of Donda. I’ll gloss over some of those (sorry about that to my fellow Kanye fanatics) and focus on the standouts: “Come to Life” and “No Child Left Behind.” Despite the less impressive nature of the end of the tracklist, these two songs are certainly two of the album’s very best. “Come to Life,” like many of the album’s songs, is very reflective. Kanye has led a legendary career filled with many infamous personal mistakes and bad moments—and it is clear here that he has regrets. It is also evident that he has learned from some of them and is working on himself. He makes it clear again that he isn’t just a static voice who steamrolls the world with only toxicity. And yet the most compelling part about the song is the piano use, which begins about halfway through the song only to take over the spotlight. The last 2.5 minutes of the 5-minute song consist mostly of a long piano solo with some brief vocal additions from Kanye. “I’m free,” Kanye proclaims after facing his well-documented mental health, substance abuse, and relationship issues. Meanwhile, “No Child Left Behind,” is peculiar because it’s just a little 3-minute interlude. Not much going on. But Kanye’s mix of synthesizer work and spectacular use of the organ as an instrument works splendidly, though “Off The Grid,” “Hurricane,” “Moon,” “Jesus Lord,” and “Come to Life” remain my favorite Donda tracks.
One of the things I and many others love about Kanye is that he is not a “rapper.” He is truly an artist. As such, his music is more than just “rap” or “hip-hop.” His music often incorporates a vast arsenal of genre incorporations. And indeed, this is manifested in his latest album. At times minimalist and at other times maximalist, Donda showcases a splurge of pop, grunge, ambient, classical, drill, electropop, gospel, trap rap, progressive rap, and industrial rap influences. And though Kanye is known more for his music than his actual rapping and lyricism, the album—clearly dedicated to Kanye’s beloved mother who tragically passed away—showcases fine rapping at times. Perhaps some of the strongest verses were delivered by guest features, yet Kanye has his share. Plus we must note the ability of Kanye as a general in trying to synthesize all of the musical elements—compounded by the array of verses (delivered by both Kanye himself and guests)—into one cohesive work, one that is also filled with brilliant parts. Kanye’s last two solo LPs were poor. Still, Donda is proof that Kanye is back! It doesn’t feel like “the album of the year” or anything this time—but it still earns a 7.5 or 8 rating. You can let all of Donda soak in or just save the songs you like. It seems like everyone has different favorites, so the task for you is to discover your own favorite songs on this colossal project.
Note: Kanye did not use any cover art for Donda.