There was a time when it felt like this album would never see the light of day. For over a year we got new cover artwork, track lists, potential release dates and then finally we got word that it would finally be released on July 23rd after a big Atlanta listening event. Obviously that didn’t happen, nor did it happen every subsequent Friday we had expected it to come out. Finally, after a third stadium event, and plenty of unneeded controversy, we have the actual music in our hands, clocking in at a little under two hours For the purposes of this review I am focusing on the first 23 tracks here as the last four are really bonus alternative versions of songs already on the album. This also lets me not speak critically of Marilyn Manson which is always a plus.
Despite being thoroughly unimpressed with his solo efforts since The Life of Pablo, which itself took a while to grow on me, I had faith that Kanye could still impress with a genuinely inspired piece of art. Up until the last month we had not even heard much from him outside his longshot Presidential bid, implying that he might actually be locked into this project and not rushing a half-assed collection of underwhelming songs. And, at least for me, while certainly bloated and messy, Donda is what I feel Kanye has been trying to accomplish since The Life of Pablo. A colorful, beautifully produced reflection on his faith and current mental state over the course of a surprisingly consistent tracklist.
The first leg of this album generally delivers some pretty fun moments with a diverse list of fresh features who all work for the most part. “Off the Grid” is an immediate standout, with a dynamic beat that seamlessly morphs to accompany Playboi Carti and Fivio Foreign, who gives a career best verse. Similarly, Baby Keem impresses with a shockingly long verse at the end of “Praise God” that continue to prove he is a promising young emcee. Even Lil Yachty gives his most dynamic performance in what feels like years on “Ok Ok.”
The softer moments on the first half of this record especially utilize their guests to the fullest. The Weeknd’s chorus on “Hurricane” is rightfully passionate and smooth against the dark, sparse production. Lil Baby follows him up excellently, continuing to show how talented he can be when given the opportunity to get introspective. And when we talk about dynamic features it is impossible not to mention Vory and Lil Durk on the emotional high of “Jonah.” Vory, who shows up all over the record, gives Donda one of its most tender moments with his chorus here that leads to a short, personal verse from Lil Durk, dissecting his troubled past and continued struggles.
Realistically I could do an entire review just going into the features, who do take up about half this record, but it is crucial to really dissect where Kanye is on this album. While his writing is clearly lacking at times, with plenty of recycled bars and filler mmm mhmmm mmms, it feels like his heart is genuinely in the verses here and when he wants he actually goes toe-to-toe with some pretty strong guests. While Jay-Z’s verse on “Jail” has some of the best wordplay on the entire record (I mean “This is what braille look like, it’s on sight,” that’s special), it’s Kanye who really fills out the song with a genuine vocal performance that cuts straight to the heart of this album. Same goes for “Jesus Lord” that sees Ye go into a heartbreaking story of violence that reminds me of extension of his verse on “Cudi Montage” from Kids See Ghosts. Even after Jay Electronica’s commanding performance on the track, it is Kanye who comes up on top in my personal opinion. And to my shock, Kanye holds his own against Griselda rappers Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine, who are both in top form on “Keep My Spirit Alive.”
I already mentioned the genuinely powerful “Hurricane” and “Jonah” but the back half of Donda is where this album really gets emotionally resonate. While short, “Moon” sounds immaculate with some soft guitars under Don Toliver and Kid Cudi’s otherworldly vocal performances. The title track is equally heartfelt, adding vocal samples of Kanye’s late mother before exploding with the sounds of Tony Williams and the Sunday Service Choir. It is one of the genuine gospel tracks on here, along with songs like “24,” which really show what potential was wasted with Jesus Is King.
Then we get to the closing four track stretch from “Lord I Need You” to “No Child Left Behind” that truly get to Donda’s central theme. We see Kanye giving his most introspective thoughts, with glimmers of insight on his recent divorce from Kim Kardashian and looking at this pain with an embrace towards the future. It is a shockingly heartwarming way to view the difficult circumstances and comes across more mature and thoughtful than I could have imagined. And while “Pure Souls” is a major highlight, utilizing Roddy Richh and a bouncy beat to the fullest, it is “Come to Life” that I will likely see as Donda’s crowning achievement. Kanye delivers one his best vocal performances against genuinely gorgeous gospel chords that all culminate in a heartfelt expression of faith that really captures the theme of loss and rebirth that Kanye had been going for.
All this being said, these great moments work well as isolated chapters of a greater album but when put together are not fully cohesive. It is messy in a very different way than The Life of Pablo, which felt completely scattershot in the way a Jackson Pollack painting might be. Donda instead has very clear ideas that are explored within select songs but not to the extent that they should for a complete album arch.
And with an album of this size there is plenty of room for cuts. The second Playboi Carti collaboration “Junya” is very unnecessary and while the production is decent, it offers almost nothing in terms of memorable content and it occasionally a bit grating. There is a good minute off the end of “God Breathed” that is really adding very little for me, which is a shame because the rest of the song is fairly decent. And even if the production is cool on “New Again,” Kanye starts the track with some pretty rough bars and we can always benefit from less Chris Brown in the world. Also “Tell the Vision” continues to prove we do not need to be digging up Pop Smoke demos for the sake of having him featured.
I still need to sit with this massive record for a bit to see where it falls into the rest of Kanye’s discography for me but this is easily the best work he has done in at least five years and about what I could have hoped for from Kanye West in 2021. There are too many highlights to ignore and I genuinely think some of these tracks will stand out among Ye’s best. Absolutely worth the wait and if we are lucky Kanye will put this much care into every project he does from here on out.
Best Tracks: Jail, Off the Grd, Hurrican, Praise God, Jonah, Believe What I Say, Moon, Donda, Keep My Spirit, Jesus Lord, Pure Souls, Come to Life
Worst Track: Junya