Kanye West’s ‘Donda’: a mix of celebrity features and controversy

Photo credit: "Kanye West - Øyafestivalen 2011" by NRK P3 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Any musician as celebrated as Kanye West is bound to go through phases, both artistically and stylistically. After leaving the “Yeezus” era, West faced personal and artistic struggles in determining what sound works for his current self.

West’s latest album, “Donda,” seems more interested in trying to find clarity through his past than looking outwards. The project, released Aug. 29 through Def Jam Records, infuses West’s knack for both gospel and trap music, alongside various high-profile featured musicians.

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While West has never been a stranger to controversy, he seems to be driven more by his need for attention.

Starting out with his usual phony album release dates, as well as appearances from rapper DaBaby and controversial stage persona Marilyn Manson at his live concert event in Chicago, West seemed to embrace the controversy.

DaBaby — under fire for homophobic rants made at Rolling Loud music festival in Miami — references the public’s reaction to his homophobia on Donda, without taking any accountability. Fellow “Jail Pt. 2” feature Manson has racked up numerous sexual and physical assault charges, damaging his public image.

Musically, any recent issues listeners have had with West will make itself known repeatedly throughout the album.

Do you dislike how sloppy West’s mixing and decision making can be? Kanye’s final verse on the track “Keep My Spirit Alive” features a verse where Detroit rapper Royce da 5”9’s vocals are as distorted as a glitching Zoom call. The Pop Smoke track is a nice tribute in theory, but West seems to have done very little to properly edit the vocals other than to follow the album’s theme of no cursing.

If you’re wary of West’s over-the-top attempts to be religious on his previous LP “Jesus is King,” nothing has changed. He’s still using youth pastor-level cliches and whenever another collaborating artist explains their faith clearly it looks bad for West.

Wish he’d stop stroking his ego? Not gonna happen.

The extended runtime of multiple tracks exists for nothing but letting the beat run and skits like Youtuber “VideoGameDunkey”’s appearance serve little purpose. Plus, the young rappers seem contractually obligated to praise West in their features.

Naming the project after his mother, you would expect her to make more of an appearance in West’s lyrics. Other than on “Jesus Lord,” she’s referenced in the same way that West — and his features — vaguely refer to God.

West’s mother, Donda West passed away in 2007 and West has publicly mourned her death using music and fame. It emerges as a missed opportunity to tribute and reflect more on her passing as it nears 15 years since her death.

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One territory where West’s emotions shine through involves his marriage with Kim Kardashian.

“Lord I Need You” and “Come To Life” both use extravagant instrumentation that only West can create, explaining the final days of the relationship. West expands his lyrical ability to try and tie these songs together using his braggadocious selfishness.

“How you gon’ try to say sometimes it’s not about me? Man, I don’t know what I would do without me,” West said in “Lord I Need You.” He ties it back with a nice story about his daughter: “Brought a gift to Northie, all she want was Nikes. This is not about me, God is still alive, so I’m free.”

Had West put effort into shortening some tracks, there could have been a beautiful, incredibly crafted album in “Donda.” Part of what made Ye and other albums from that era strong was how the short runtimes drove his focus and ability to stay on topic. This can be seen in the second half of “Donda;” no longer overpowered by guests, the latter part is much more organized.

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Instrumentally, this album is fantastic. The beats are some of his most creative and well designed to fit both Kanye as well as his guests in years, songs like “Moon” and “Junya” show what a Kanye album can do at it’s best, blending completely different styles in one huge delicious stew. Personally I believe it’s his best since Yeezus and the quality holds up against the quantity.

With over 30 features, you get as close as possible to hit or miss. There are some great ones, including Playboi Carti, Fivio Foreign, Thugger, Travis Scott and The Weeknd. Lil Yachty had one of his best verses in a while.

If Kanye had been more willing to only keep guests that enhance “Donda” and focus on the concepts, he could have had his best album since “Yeezus.” “Donda” is proof that his best habits and instincts are starting to lose the war against his worst.

Don’t just take our word for it, check out “Donda” here.

Featured image: “Kanye West – Øyafestivalen 2011” by NRK P3 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0