It came as no surprise that the release of Kanye West’s latest record, Donda, was flanked by a series of bizarre launch events. Stunts included, but were not limited to, a livestream of West’s monastic living quarters in the back of a football stadium, where he could be seen lifting dumbbells and doing push-ups. The divorced dad energy was palpable.
Across the three listening parties that preceded Donda’s release, audiences witnessed the record’s formation in real time, as the rapper tweaked, chopped and changed after each successive event. The final product, named after the West’s late mother, is a 27-track, 108-minute slog, as exasperating to get through as the protracted roll-out that came before. Despite the buried gems and occasional bursts of wild inspiration, the record is completely overstuffed and wholly underwhelming.
The bloated tracklist begins with “Donda Chant”, where a female voice repeats the name Donda in mock ceremony, setting the tone for the ritualistic fervour that West approaches most of his life’s work. It’s not long before his estranged wife Kim Kardashian is mentioned. She is a constant spectral presence throughout. “Don’t you curse at me on text… Guess who’s getting exed?”, West childishly asserts on “Jail”, which also features Jay-Z. “You made a choice that’s your bad, single life ain’t so bad.” The track marks the beginning of Kanye’s dad-rap era: a stadium rock equivalent that’s all anthemic choruses and bracing guitars; cringeworthy but enjoyable, in a last-orders-at-the-karaoke-bar kind of way.
The end of West’s marriage produces plenty of amusing material across the album. On “Lord I Need You”, West retrospectively refers to his marriage as “the best collab since Taco Bell and KFC”, in reference to the fast food restaurants often occupying the same lots in the US. But on “Keep My Spirit Alive”, one of the many gospel-inflected tracks, the rapper rallies against the limitations imposed on him by his wife, complaining that he’s “42 and you got a curfew”. Despite the quips, neither tracks are particularly memorable, buried in a sea of homogenous sounds and melodies.
Elsewhere, the unremarkable “Remote Control” is indicative of West’s creative direction on this new record. “Got it on remote control/Like a CEO/I thought you should know” he sings on the chorus. It’s not exactly clear what he thinks we should know: the track seems to be a half-hearted attempt to satirise an increasingly automated world, but lacks the lyrical precision of past send-ups. West adopts the rap-sung stylings of his younger counterparts, many of whom are featured on this record, but given the lyrical and sonic radicalism of his previous work, this comes off as hackneyed and unconsidered.
Ironically, shorter tracks that fill the spaces between supposedly flagship moments feel the most refreshing. West flexes on “Junya”, a bassy delight that’s typically ego-driven but deliciously intoxicating. “24” – in homage to the late basketball legend Kobe Bryant’s number 24 jersey – is a tender interlude that touches on the despondency of loss without becoming overly sentimental: “nothing else ever feels right”, sing West’s Sunday Service Choir gospel group.
But for an album that is, in theory, so personal to West, the best moments come from its collaborators rather than the artist himself. Jay Electronica delivers a biting verse on “Jesus Lord” (“Earthquakes will strike this nation for what Bush did to Rwanda/What the Clintons did to Haiti/and Downing Street did to Ghana”). Roddy Ricch carries “Pure Souls” with an effervescent bravado, reinvigorating the record in its fading throes. But it’s the Playboi Carti and Fivio Foreign-assisted “Off The Grid” that truly captures the raucous spirit of the old Kanye. The fact that the visitors do all the heavy lifting is further evidence of West’s waning influence.
Not all collaborations are created equally, though, and one is memorable for all the wrong reasons. “Jail, Pt 2” inexplicably features alleged sexual abuser Marilyn Manson and the rapper DaBaby, who was recently criticised for making a slew of homophobic remarks at Rolling Loud festival. Not only is the track indistinguishable from part one, but hearing an alleged rapist chant “Guess who’s going to jail tonight?” is uncomfortable. On an album that was already laboured and, for the most part, uninspired, this deliberately “edgy” but creatively hollow choice seems all the weaker. In the face of declining artistry, increasingly gross stunts are becoming a necessary part of West’s shtick.