In Review: “Donda”

Kanye West’s new album Donda does at first seem like the result of the music industry’s contemporary quarrels: delays and overhyped features of the hottest rappers and singers, and at last, one’s only hope is that good music comes out of it, which hangs on a string of unfinished songs, but one can’t possibly overlook the obvious beauty in the tenth album of this rap veteran. West’s talent is obvious also, but the real beauty to anyone who cares to bother with the true mastery of the Chicago Native’s latest music and personality, knows that it is in Donda being titled after his mother, Donda West, who’s passing in 2007 interrupted the trailblazing rap star’s career and set him off into another direction personally and artistically. The 27-song dedication to his mother makes for a sincere and serious album re-solidifying Kanye West’s status as a rap performer who can afford and manage a tenth album named after something so dear amongst so much chaos. 

In today’s age of celebrity, google, attention-seeking schemes, fame, propaganda, and overzealous artistic ambitions, it’s hard for an artist like Kanye West, whose personal life was exploited due to the death of his mother and who’d probably in this day and age much rather not have his name or birthdate looked up on any search engine or see it at the top of the local paper. Kanye went through an event, the significant event where a star dies or a star is left to deal with grief of a loved one in front of everyone that leaves the world in a complex state. The controversy which followed the death of his mother – full of lawsuits against surgeons and finger-pointing and blaming – mirror too closely the life of a typical high-profile celebrity and a real artist with a real life like Kanye. Kanye’s struggle is not typical, though. Kanye’s struggle is to continue his artistry through a serious, grieving moment and this represents the life of many folks, especially black folks and black celebrities. When a person dies in a black family, there is this big ordeal about where the body will be buried (and there’s chicken and a celebration), then there’s the drama and all the how’s and why’s of explaining to a talented and smart black child this thing called life, the high’s and the low’s, and the celebration and grief of it. Of course, the power of a black man loving his mother, the spiritual pipeline through which brought him and many other black men into the world, and the recognition of that love is too often overlooked, but Kanye refuses to make us ignore that even on an artistically-restrained album like Donda.

Acclaimed writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is an inspiration to my writing as I write about music and politics and whose own writing is inspired by the great James Baldwin, talked about Kanye’s struggle in today’s age of celebrity in his article “I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye” for The Atlantic and likened Kanye West to his idol and the man known as the greatest musician of all-time, Michael Jackson. Coates likened West’s “old Kanye” and “new Kanye” to when Michael Jackson changed the color of his skin and ultimately took on the status as the King of Pop, which was the subject of much conversation and debate then and remains a topic at the center of popular, mainstream culture. Kanye has reminded us of something even deeper than what the King of Pop’s skin change reminded us, and that is the death of a loved one is much steeper, much more stabbing than the usual propaganda of high-profile celebrities and artists, which includes cases of sexual abuse, and that is to most people, steeper, more stabbing than a case of murder. Indeed, in his blackness and fame, like Coates explains, Kanye reminds us of his late idol and ours, but then of course, there is the task of becoming like Michael Jackson in his artistry like all artists, but especially the artists of today. 

What makes Kanye different from others, though, is that he understands the assignment of being different, artistic, new, and more recently the art of celebrity, which is not easy to master in the way in which Michael Jackson mastered it. Being different seems too less of a debate for an artist like Kanye now, but “being different” and the other strange requirements of celebrities as they are welcomed into the world of fame that were once important is something Kanye refuses to let go of. Kanye reminds us that choosing to be different is far more important than not being different on Donda, and it’s his job to take the bait at this point in his career. Coates in his essay argued that Kanye should be a realer, more authentic Kanye of old, but the similarities are there between Kanye and Michael, the world’s most beloved celebrity and musician man has seen with his own two eyes, in his blackness and power, and the stakes are too high for Kanye not to reach an invincible level of artistic change like M.J. I guess Kanye, at the very least, can find solace amongst all the struggles of his fame in that. Like Michael, Kanye West doesn’t just want to be a celebrity, but an inspirational and experimental artist of mystery and wonder, which explains all the experimental music and the features, and no one can dare overlook that. At this point in his career, Kanye has no choice but to be a great big beacon of light. In today’s age of celebrity, it is hard to navigate between overhyped fame and celebrity and make real music and unveil your true artistic intentions, and it’s also hard for fans to understand, but Kanye is here to remind us of that and clear the air. Perhaps, on Donda, Kanye West wants to disrupt that way of thinking altogether and turn the industry’s odds back in his favor. Donda, an album Kanye released on the birthday of Michael Jackson, is of course the product of the age of celebrity that Coates explains, but it is much more the portrait of an artist trying to recapture and reimagine artistry and place things into perspective for himself and others, which is the real work of an artist like Kanye West who is 10 albums in and is an inspiration to many. 

And I understand and am inspired by Kanye and know him not to be scared. I remember listening to Graduation during the fall of 2007 and the ambitious album with the song “Champion” helping me through the passing of my great-grandmother who I lived in the same house with since I was 2 until her passing at the age of 92. I was a 13-year-old teenager in 2007 and had one year left of middle school before entering high school. That album was an inspiring album which saw a different, growing Kanye who was still owing debts to Jay-Z on a track called “Big Brother” and it served as a sequel to The College Dropout. Who could forget The College Dropout and Late Registration, which served us early Kanye with empowering lyrics and significance? I remember rapping the lyrics to and singing along to Syleena Johnson’s and Jamie Foxx’s soulful voices on “All Falls Down” and “Slow Jamz” and watching Kanye shake the music industry similar to the likes of 50 Cent. Kanye’s story of having a wired mouth mirrored 50 Cent’s story of being shot 9 times and Kanye was indeed up next after 50 with his 2004 debut. A Kanye West concert was one of the first concerts I’d ever been to, and I saw him again when “Power” was on a music takeover at a sold-out crowd at Summerfest. This was all before Donda, and a lot of things. Kanye would probably like to remember this time, but at last, we arrive at Donda looking to carry out the inspiration and the weight of an interesting legacy of one of today’s biggest artists. 

On Donda, there are two songs that carry the ultimate inspiration of Kanye, his mother, and inhibit the artist’s rare public response to his mother’s passing. The opening song, “Donda Chant” has the voice of Kanye’s good friend and collaborator, Syleena Johnson saying Kanye’s mother’s name 58 times to commemorate the age of Ms. West when she passed. There’s the title track, “Donda” and it is what it appears to be: a song beautifully crafted to show the love of Kanye’s mom and his relationship with her, and it’s hard not to draw comparisons to Tupac’s “Dear Mama” in its poetic aspect. The entire song is a speech from Kanye’s mom, and the fact that it is a poetic speech that serves as an interlude rather than a song makes it more powerful than if it were a song. Both the “Donda Chant” and “Donda” cause the experimental album to pause and at the right moment, perhaps in a moment of silence. “Donda Chant,” which casually and artistically uses the chant idea from Michael’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” starts off politely at track 1 and “Donda” sits in the middle of a 27-track album at track 15, which may be a product of randomness or Kanye’s track-ordering ability. The album only needed three more songs to be 30 tracks, so the title track beautifully named after his mother is perfect as track 15.

There are 27 songs in total on Kanye’s latest album, and the album almost has 27 features. It’s difficult to get past the seriousness behind the title and get over the album having any meaning aside from the title, but it also becomes apparent that Kanye’s still experimenting with rap and music genres that he began on his Yeezus album, which was his first experimental album. Longtime fans of the rap star, affectionately nicknamed “Ye,” will feel that the sound on Donda dates back to 808s & Heartbeat and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. One thing is clear, and that’s the fact that Donda doesn’t take the shape of an album solely and sincerely dedicated to his mother with sentimental and heartfelt tracks, but it does take its twists and turns in becoming a full rap album of new Kanye fashion. The experimental rap is surrounded by gospel doctrine, which Kanye is known for, but especially recently since he started his “Sunday Service” gatherings. Kanye might be “Yeezus” or new Kanye on Donda a little too much for its beloved title, but even Yeezus as a full album had an underlying Black Power message to it that everyone overlooked, and that was driven by Kanye’s lyrical power and producing genius. Kanye wants us to know that he has the ability to make whatever music he wants whether it be an album titled after his mother or random good songs. Donda is like Yeezus, and Kanye is different. He takes on a different style of rap, but he takes others along for the ride with him, which makes Donda ironically a serious, more determined album than any other 2020’s experiment. 

The features on Donda make their own statement and accomplish the thing that artists today are doing in having features of guest appearances by celebrity friends and rap peers. The other thing the features accomplish is that they are about spearheading this era of experimental rap, a new sound of music, or this era that new and upcoming artists are experimenting in an age of celebrity where real talent lacks, both sides to a coin which Kanye understands as a rapper and mentor to upcoming rappers from Chicago. The real big thing that the features accomplish is that they make real use of the feature aspect almost by overusing it through all of this. The big accomplishment of all the features is the conducive, fruitful verses they offer and the help to Kanye in a sincere time of need as paying tribute to his mother. The features aren’t just there for the feature spot on most tracks. Perhaps, that’s why a verse by Jay-Z appears right away on the album at track 2 on a song titled “Jail,” a song touching on the subject of mass incarceration that is dear to both rappers. The purest example of this great use of conduciveness through a tough time is Roddy Ricch’s feature on “Pure Souls,” a song about not selling your soul to the music industry, which many in the industry fear. “Pure Souls” accomplishes its goal of sticking out on the album for its message and upbeat tempo, perhaps the most upbeat song on the album that displays Kanye’s direction and vision with a feature from an emerging rapper like Ricch. Songs like “Ok Ok” and “Junya” appearing back to back also display a sincere direction of creativity, production, and lyricism. Also, one can’t possibly overlook the deeper meaning and point of all the features being that Kanye is still obviously going through something and his celebrity friends are there to help. The first thing is the aftermath of his mother’s passing, and he does a good job of letting us know that with an album named after her, but it’s also that he’s still going through a musical crisis. Whether or not he has found the answer to that musical crisis – his music experiment phase – is unknown on Donda, but it does cap off this interesting music phase of Kanye and it’s interesting to follow, especially this time around since he chose to collaborate with others on this experiment and incorporate their struggles and talk about all of the struggles of today’s artists. 

The true depth of Donda is in its meaning and representation. The gospel of Kanye, which is an experiment he has been working on since “Jesus Walks,” is thorough, loud and clear, simple and plain, and gets more experimental on Donda. Kanye’s experiment of incorporating gospel and conscious rap into the mainstream music scene and intent on making it work is a testament to his full abilities. This consciousness coupled with the sheer ability to rap and Kanye’s production makes up a Godly-inspired music industry where you can talk about religion or anything and not be banned, and furthermore is a lighthearted a mockery of the industry for which he has been through and mastered. Kanye has a song called “God Breathed” on Donda, and it is an inspired exploration of artistry and representative of Kanye’s belief in what he believes is his God-inspired, God-level art. Then there’s, “Lord I Need You,” which is the gospel hymn it looks like, the empowering and convincing Lauryn Hill-sampled “Believe What I Say,” and “No Child Left Behind,” which takes us back to the political Kanye who stated publicly that George Bush didn’t like black people. Kanye is Kanye on Donda, new and old, still paying homage to his idol Michael Jackson and God. He is less vocal and more musical, but still political and experimental, but it’s an organized experimental. All of it makes for an inspired new album, although severely limited by random experimentation, made by an extraordinary famous rapper.

Kanye deserves his experimentation moment, a moment of silence, a moment of total uproar and chaos, and a moment where all eyes are on him, especially because he is in this generation of faux stars and celebrities and sometimes cannot master the art of his hip-hop genre, perhaps, like the late great Tupac Shakur. For Kanye, this is all an experiment; it’s an experiment of sounds and life, of hip-hop rhymes and beats that no one can touch, which is the ultimate experiment in hopes of making those grand works of art, such as Tupac’s All Eyez On Me or Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which was an experiment for the music industry at the time and music’s biggest record. Kanye embodies that it is a task to first make art, and second, to leave behind any hint of privacy, and thirdly, to also complete the work in a generation which knows nothing of privacy or of real artistry. 

Donda is an interesting album. The aesthetic is creative, artistic, and random. It’s full of artistic and creative song titles which stand out and are arranged in a compilation-album style. The album is the obvious result of Kanye’s creative artist brain at its highest frequency, and he’s now an artist who is navigating his way through an industry knowing its real problems and testing the limits of both the creativity and deeply personal stuff, such as grief, blackness, police brutality, and spirituality. It also is cohesive and contradictory at the same time. It is Kanye making lyrics, rhymes, sounds, and beats up out of his randomness in today’s celebrity age and bringing all of today’s artists together that will, at the very least release us from our worries or troubles or artistic freedoms.

He knows that we are going to say “24” is the best song and cry our eyes out to “Lord I Need You.” He knows that we are going to eat up his big brother, bestfriend, rap peer, and mentor, Jay-Z’s feature and all the features. This is why Kanye West, who can still afford the best rap beats and stay afloat the emerging rap scene and maintain his rap superiority, can do what he wants. But for a split second, he’s decided to shine a light and name an album after his late mother, which has a deluxe edition and might need a part 2 as he’s promised.


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