Artist: Kanye West
Label: GOOD / Def Jam
Released: 29 August 2021
1. Donda Chant
3. God Breathed
4. Off The Grid
6. Praise God
8. Ok Ok
10. Believe What I Say
12. Remote Control
14. Heaven and Hell
16. Keep My Spirit Alive
17. Jesus Lord
18. New Again
19. Tell The Vision
20. Lord I Need You
21. Pure Souls
22. Come to Life
23. No Child Left Behind
"And if I talk to Christ, can I bring my mother back to life?
And if I die tonight, will I see her in the afterlife?
But back to reality, where everything's a tragedy
You better have a strategy or you could be a statistic"
It’s unlikely that we’ll see an album rollout quite as scattered and turbulent as Kanye West’s “Donda” for a very long time. Even with the infamous release of his 7th album, “The Life of Pablo”, in 2016, which underwent multiple structural revisions for months after its initial launch, “Donda” easily sits as one of the most bizarre, yet also captivating releases of recent memory. The record’s reputation precedes itself at this point, with a tumultuous release period spanning from the original announcement of the album, back in July of last year, all the way to the trilogy of listening parties that each saw the final product slowly come to fruition. And like “TLOP”, back in 2016, it’s not too farfetched to assume that the version of “Donda” we have now is likely subject to change in the future. But now that the album, against all odds, has actually managed to hit streaming services, with its absolutely mammoth nearly-two-hour runtime, the key question remains: after all of that commotion, is it actually any good?
The short answer is a resounding yes. In fact, this is a fantastic album. As someone who’s followed its release religiously over the last few months, I was bound to have been let down by the sheer hype surrounding the project. This was especially true when considering that, until I actually saw it on Spotify with my own eyes, I’d become fairly convinced that the album would never be released. So even before I had actually listened to the album for the very first time, I had this strange mythical preconception of it; a unique feeling that I can only really attribute to all the other scrapped Kanye albums that saw the same fate “Donda” almost had. But considering all of this, as well as the album’s incredibly bloated appearance upon first glance, “Donda” was far from a disappointment for me.
This is a dense album. Even discounting the four ‘pt. 2’ tracks at the end of the record (which should really just be considered bonus tracks following the finale of ‘No Child Left behind’), “Donda” still rounds off at around an hour and a half, making it by far Kanye’s lengthiest project to date. And while there are a few songs throughout the record which definitely could have been left at the drawing board, there’s a surprising lack of filler here. The album suffers a dip in quality throughout its mid-section, from ‘Ok Ok’ to ‘Remote Control’ (except ‘Believe What I say’, which is a fantastic song, despite feeling incredibly out of place), but aside from this, “Donda” is excellent from front to back, featuring some career-high moments from West. And through everything on the record, from the enigmatic opening moments of ‘Donda Chant’, in which Syleena Johnson repeats his mother’s name over and over, to the numerous soundbites from Donda West throughout the album, to Kanye’s various verses dedicated to her memory, to the name of the album itself; everything here feels like a proud commemoration of his mother. The very nature of the music on “Donda” even feels dedicated to her; West’s style underwent an undeniable shift in 2008, when he scrapped his fourth studio album “Good Ass Job”, in the wake of her tragic passing. This resulted in “808s and Heartbreak”, one of the most influential albums of the 21st century, and a highly formative moment in West’s career. The trajectory of his discography, into the era of what I personally consider to be his greatest artistic achievements, stemmed from this stylistic shift, and “Donda” feels like a culmination of each and every one of the albums he’s released since. It shares something with each of these records; “808’s” exploration of loss and grief; “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s” mobilization of the very best of Kanye’s contemporaries; “Yeezus’” harsh, abrasive instrumentals, which can be heard in spades on ‘God Breathed’ and ‘Off The Grid’; the multifaceted and lengthy messiness of “The Life Of Pablo”; the introspection of “Ye”; and of course, the themes of religion and faith from “Jesus is King”. Each of these can be heard throughout “Donda”, weaved amongst the record to create an album that feels genuinely and wholeheartedly in loving memory of his mother, and her profound impact on his life.
This isn’t to say that I don’t have reservations about some of Kanye’s creative decisions. First and foremost, seeing Marilyn Manson and Dababy at the Chicago listening party left a bad taste in my mouth that the actual release of the album is still yet to alleviate. The fact that they made it to the final cut of the album is disgusting enough, even if they were reduced to landing on the Record’s B-sides. I don’t think I could ever possibly understand West’s reasoning behind this; their inclusion on ‘Jail pt 2’ was obviously meant to reflect upon themes of redemption and forgiveness, but the execution of this was borderline offensive. All I can say, is thankfully I have the option to completely ignore that Marilyn Manson’s genuinely cringe-inducing backing vocals of “We are liars!” ever existed in the first place, and just listen to the original cut of the song instead. Either way, this is a seriously disappointing aspect of the record, and no matter how much praise I can give to the rest of “Donda”, these inclusions definitely tarnish its appeal.
However, aside from an appearance from Chris Brown, which once again absolutely baffles me, there’s an incredible amount of quality features on “Donda”. Like he did a decade ago with “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”, West has enlisted the best of the best here. Travis Scott, Kid Cudi, The Weeknd, Playboi Carti, Jay Z; the list goes on and on, and each are at the top of their game in their respective roles. I’ve always considered Kanye to be one of the best collaborators of all time; he’s able to inspire fantastic performances in people, while also being incredibly inspired by them, leading to some phenomenal material. This mutual elevation can be seen at every turn on “Donda”, but it’s at its most potent on the fourth track on the album: ‘Off The Grid’. The song includes amazing verses from Kanye and Playboi Carti, and possibly the best feature of the entire album, with Fivio Foreign. But it’s the way that each of their parts communicate with each other that makes the track so electrifying. In another highlight on the record, ‘Moon’ layers each of its features on top of one another, in order to create an absolutely gorgeous and otherworldly assembly of styles and sounds. Hearing Kid Cudi over Don Toliver’s gorgeous falsettos is one of the “Donda’s” finest moments, and signals a return to form after its underwhelming mid-section.
However, although “Donda” has no shortages of fantastic featuring artists, they never manage to overshadow Kanye himself. The most powerful moments on “Donda” are all spearheaded singularly by West; the emotional ode to his mother in the first verse of ‘Jesus Lord’; the breathtaking fusion of gospel and hip-hop in ‘Heaven and Hell’; and of course, the best moment on the entire album; the gorgeous climax of ‘Come To Life’. This is a particularly special moment, and one that already feels like a classic only weeks after its live debut, playing over the dramatic scene in which West set himself on fire in the centre of Soldier Field Stadium in Chicago. Like much of “Donda”, it shows just how much West can achieve using so little. It’s highly stripped back; without any drums or backing vocals, and features some of the best singing in Kanye’s entire career. Followed by the gorgeous ‘No Child Left Behind’, this is a truly emotional and potent moment, not just in the context of “Donda”, but within West’s entire career. Especially after “Jesus Is King”, which felt relatively superficial and hollow, ‘Come to Life’, along with many of the other songs on “Donda” which discuss West’s spirituality, is a far more nuanced and personal perspective. There’s so much love, faith, pain, and desperation in his voice; he sings about his family, his relationship with god, and his battle with mental health over the years, and it all comes out in the most eloquent and passionate that the man has ever sounded in the twenty years that he’s been making music. I’m still astounded by the track, even after many, many relistens, and I have a feeling that it, along with much of “Donda”, will go down as one of Kanye’s defining moments.
“Donda”, while being overlong and including a fairly rough middle section, still manages to succeed in almost every way. The last stretch of tracks in particular, from the sprawling ‘Jesus Lord’, to the gorgeous closing moments of ‘No Child Left Behind’, are some of Kanye’s best work. While the rollout of the album was eventful, to say the least, I personally believe it’s managed to live up to the insurmountable hype that was generated, and I think that once the dust clears, and people have had some time to properly digest the record, it’ll be given a lot more love than it’s currently getting. Let’s just hope that if West does decide to pull a “TLOP” on us and start fiddling with the damn thing over the next few months, the first thing he does is pull the Manson and Dababy features. While it’s only been out for a week, I can tell that this is going to be something that I’ll be listening for years and years into the future, just like the rest of Kanye’s releases. This is a great record, and somewhat of a redemption after the underwhelming “Jesus Is King”. And while the man is ever-unpredictable, I hope that “Donda” is a clear sign that we’ll be in for yet another extremely strong decade from Kanye West in the 2020s.
"I been in the dark for so long
Night is always darkest 'fore the dawn
Gotta make my mark 'fore I'm gone
I don't wanna die alone
I don't wanna die alone"
Reviewed by Layton Bryce - 05/09/2021
6/9/21, 8:39 am
Loved it 😍
5/9/21, 8:53 am
another great review, so proud of u x
31/8/21, 3:24 am
25/8/21, 11:55 am
yay!!! i love this review 🤍
12/8/21, 11:55 am
yay another great review!!! i love it!!!
5/8/21, 9:00 am
a very thoughtful and great review!!!
31/7/21, 12:55 am
such a good review!!!
31/7/21, 12:53 am
God I have been waiting on this review since I first watched Inside and you put it in words perfectly! (I personally would've rated it a 10/10) This review and this special are both amazing!! love love LOVE it!!
27/7/21, 8:56 am
yay!!! love olivia and this review!!!🤍
27/7/21, 6:40 am
Love your reviews! Keep em coming