After one of the most creative album rollouts of all time, the world is finally tuning in to the tenth solo studio album by Kanye West, Donda. It’s fair to say that the stakes were fairly high for Donda to answer a lot of questions surrounding Kanye’s dedication to music. This didn’t stop the album from breaking new records, hitting No. 1 on Apple Music’s Top Albums chart in 152 countries in just 24 hours, and streamed more than 60 million times in the United States alone. After a hiatus littered with bizarre and sporadic business ventures, public arguments and unusual housing choices, a lot of Yeezus fans felt left in the past while ‘Ye’ trailblazed off into the future. The life of Pablo became crowded with church services, housing projects, sneaker launches, GAP collaborations and public spats with fellow rappers to the detriment of the music.
If you’ve always loved Kanye West the musician, the lyricist, or the spoken word poet then you may agree that it’s been difficult to recognise a lot of the light-hearted and raw hip-hop elements in anything he’s released in the post Life of Pablo era. A lot of those that remember the passionate activist that used his words to call out injustice in a society that makes us question ‘Who Will Survive In America?’ have grown weary watching him now try to sit atop every aspect of that system.
However, I think it’s important to highlight that any lost love for “the new Kanye” isn’t to do with his off the pitch antics but rather the calibre of his in-the-booth performance. A lot of Kanye’s core fandom have flowed with and moulded their affections through multiple reimaginings of Ye before, whether it be his transition from a backpack rapper to the 808 loving Love Lockdown sensation, or from the soulful ‘Made in America’ road runner to a gospel self-proclaimed demi-god. Therefore, any dealignment from Kanye fandom has historically never been connected to his transitions or experimentations with new facets of his character. In fact, Kanye’s chameleon-like ability to adapt and reinterpret his artistry has become one of the cornerstone reasons why Kanye is heralded as one of the greatest rappers of his generation.
So, the recent feeling of stomach-churning concern that Donda may drive some fans even further away can be explained by a simple lack of connection felt toward the music in recent years. The uncertainty of which Ye would actually show up caused a fury of questions that made the numerous delays, leaks and pushbacks unbearable. What style of production would we hear this time? Is he going to look backwards and feature artists who have helped craft his current legacy or go for contemporary artists to help build him a new one? Would it be Ye, Pablo, the college dropout, the graduate, the disciple or the god that stepped to the mic for the first time in his third decade of crafting classic albums? It turns out, in true Kanye fashion, he brought a little of all of them…and boy did it work.
DONDA BREAKDOWN: PRODUCTION
Let’s answer that first question, where does Donda fit in Kanye’s legacy as a once in a generation Producer? Overall the production on the album is extremely well rounded and balanced, finding a perfect fusion of trademark Ye elements, experimental layering of sounds from a wide variety of contemporary influences and an adept knowledge of how to craft a narrative in a beat using forward-thinking composition. Although the delayed release of the album caused fan frustration, it may have been the right call as nothing feels rushed or cheated from a production standpoint.
On a track like ‘Heaven & Hell’ he plays with timing and minimal instrumentation to allow the track to breathe, build and unfold organically until the drop kicks in nearly halfway through the track. Conversely, on a track like ‘I’m Not Okay’, he fills in all the silences around his fast double-time lyrics with imposing panning 808’s in order to create a more claustrophobic environment. The duality that Kanye often explores of the relationship between light and dark permeates the production style of Donda, juxtaposing warm organ interludes on tracks like ‘Never Abandon Your family’ with the cold tin-like voice textures on ‘I Know God Breathed On This’. His masterful ability to add such a wide variety of grain and character to different beats allows each track to hit like an individual chapter from one unified, thoughtfully constructed and meaningful story. Rather than using a whole album to convey to his audience just one chapter of his own story or one facet of his character.
Nonetheless, what is most impressive about Kanye’s production throughout this project is the mature level of restraint and discipline he shows, never getting lost in operatic crescendos that drown out the message of the track. Whilst tracks like ‘Jail’ still features the bombastic electric guitar and powerful backing choir reminiscent of ‘Murder To Excellence’, others like ‘Keep My Spirit’ are delicate and stripped back in order to add an element of humble boom-bap production into a lofty album with lots to contend with.
Throughout Donda, Kanye demonstrated his versatility at catering to a wide demographic of fans by drawing on popular components of other genres from around the world of music whilst still seeming as though he stayed true to his own style of producing. The mellow 80s style funk synths and muted natural deep-house style bass on ‘New Again’ show a willingness to create for the present moment that we haven’t seen from Ye in a long time. Similarly, the UK trap influences on ‘Off The Grid’ are yet another example of Kanye’s awareness of current global trends and a subtle nod to the bar-raising standards set by UK producers since his last drop in 2019.
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DONDA BREAKDOWN: FEATURES
The star-studded lineup joining Ye on Donda can best be described as a Museum of Yeezus – Past & Present. Familiar friends, new faces, ex-rivals and tomorrow’s superstar all turned out to pay homage to Donda’s honorary namesake, Mrs Donda West. However, perhaps the most obviously surprising feature was the long-awaited reunion of Hove and his favourite protege, as the two teams up on ‘Jail’, their first single since Watch the Throne.
Ye kicks off the track with a boisterous build-up of escalating vocals strung over a strong electric guitar, mirroring a similar song structure on ‘Why I Love You’ from Watch The Throne. The beat levels out halfway through to the track, rolling out the red carpet for Jay to drop the verse fans have waited on for over a decade. Right on queue, Jay jumps into the pocket and pitches hit tent there, gliding effortlessly over a complex beat that could easily give a lesser rapper cause for concern. With all the friction between Hove and Kanye, whether it be the Saint Pablo tour tirade or the Tidal situation, Jay’s inclusion on ‘Jail’ feels like the end of a complex and confusing chapter in the story of their friendship.
The beat on ‘Jail’ seemed all too good to just use and move on from, instead Kanye used the same beat to gift a giant stage to the only artist who openly stated he would vote for him for president…DaBaby. The ‘BOP on Broadway’ superstar certainly had some big shoes to fill, daring to step into the place of Jay-Z on ‘Jail 2’. Where Jay played with spacing and timing to create an airy and open verse, DaBaby grabs hold onto a fast-paced tempo to deliver his patented bass-filled double-time flow. DaBaby showcases the mastery of his individualistic sound by displaying his distinct contrasting rhyming style on the same beat as a seasoned veteran like Jay, a ballsy move for any young artist and one that does not sell him short. However, as if enough legends weren’t already gracing ‘Jail Pt. 1& 2’ with their presence, Marilyn Manson makes a surprise appearance in the tracks writing credits. A faint layering of vocals reminiscent of Marilyn’s unmistakable voice can be heard throughout the track. After Manson joined Kanye on stage at his listening party in Chicago, fans were confused as to the reasoning for including the problematic rockstar after numerous charges of sexual misconduct had been brought against him in recent months. Marilyn’s appearance on Jail can best be explained as part of Kanye’s fetishistic desire to reimagine the ‘rockstar spirit’ as a living work of art, something Manson arguably pioneered in the early 2000s. Sadly, since its release, this feature has overshadowed a lot of the quality elements of the track and album as it embodies the unwillingness of Kanye’s managerial team to say no to any of his bizarre and nonsensical requests.
‘Jesus Lord’ is certainly in the running for the standout track on Donda, a track that could only be crafted by too old friends and the masterful mind of Jay Electronica. Not one year after dropping his debut album A Written Testimony in collaboration with Hove, Jay Electronica is standing proud on one of the biggest hip-hop records in recent memory, showing us all that he has no plans to pull a disappearing act again. It may have taken us 8 years to finally get to hear a Jay Electronica tape, I think we can take this appearance as confirmation that he’s here to stay. Jay’s inclusion on Donda is a perfect example of how Kanye has used this project to look backwards and highlight artists that have played pivotal roles in his musical development. Kid Cudi, Young Thug, Chris Brown, Jay-Z and Pusha T have all worked on classic tracks with Ye throughout his career. They each play a pivotal role on Donda, catering to that cross-section of fans that crave to see Ye surrounded by those he has inspired and previously looked up to.
However, Donda is by no means just a walk down memory lane as Ye features a hungry roster of contemporary superstars who are eager to make the most of their opportunity to feature on a classic Kanye album. Travis Scott gives us a seamless verse on ‘Praise God’ that would fit right at home on Astro World if it wasn’t for the spine-tingling Halloween-ish organ that radiates an unmistakable Kanye quality. Both Travis & Roddy Ritch on ‘Pure Soul’ are able to retain a lot of their signature sounds and sonic aesthetic rather than having to conform to the tight artistic guidelines Ye usually imposes. Whether it be Roddy’s bouncing bassline or Travis’s silky incremental chord changes and piercing adlibs, both verses display Kanye’s willingness to bend his vision and truly collaborate with featured artists throughout Donda, particularly the young ones. Honorary mentions for coldest feature must go to Pop Smoke on ‘We Made It’, Pusha T on ‘Donda/ South Carolina’, and the bulletproof tag-team duo of Playboi Carti & Fivo Foreign on ‘Off the Grid’.
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As people begin to soundtrack their lives with Donda, they will undoubtedly find a track that will fulfil their desire to hear from whatever version of Kanye they previously hoped would show up. No matter if they are driving to work, picking the kids up from school, going out or staying in, Ye has created a project that will embed itself in the day to day of music lovers everywhere, and really that has always been the mark of a classic album.
Since its release, Donda has created an unsurprisingly divisive reaction, as does anything Ye touches. Whilst Kanye may use his traditional retort of ‘art is supposed to divide opinion’ in the face of such criticism, such cold-hearted rationality will do little to aid the concerns of those hurt by the inclusion of problematic characters like Marilyn Manson & DaBaby. Many believe that the platform given to these two artists has left a bitter taste that cannot be cleaned with any amount of gospel. Similarly, popular criticism has begun circling around the sporadic and mish-mash composition of the album as certain songs appear out of place and hastily included, a reflection of the unfinished and rushed feeling surrounding the release of the whole album.
Conversely, too many Donda is quintessentially Kanye yet still remains collaborative, understated, balanced and satisfying to those of us that feared he had burnt down all bridges to the bright-eyed backpack rapper we grew up to. Throughout the entirety of the album, he fuses contemporary approaches to production with an old school knowledge of penmanship in order to craft something futuristic and forward-facing. On an album that revolves around his roots, he has turned backward to look at his past and taken the best of each chapter in his bizarre story. Tastemakers of the past that evolved with him like Jay-Z, Playboi Carti and Young Thug stand shoulder to shoulder with the titans of tomorrow’s game that he has guided like SSC, Vory and Rooga. It’s too early to tell where this album will sit in Ye’s coveted discography, however, judging by the quality of the record…the only one leaving this whole Donda experience with a bruised ego will be Chance The Rapper.
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See also: KANYE WEST – MASTER OF VIRALITY