At his best, Kanye West is one of the finest rappers and producers of his generation. Over the course of 17 years (and now 10 studio albums), Chicago’s mercurial son has mesmerized—and at times confounded—us as he explains himself through music. Call it the Kanye dilemma: He can’t help but be himself. When he’s able to translate that into something that transcends himself, like The College Dropout or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he has been wildly successful. Unfortunately, with Donda, the message feels stale, incoherent, and self-indulgent.
The record drags at a whopping 27 songs, spread out over one hour and 48 minutes. Opener “Donda,” which is 52 seconds of chanting, would indicate that the listener is in for something revolutionary. But that momentum burns out pretty quickly—and the listener begins to wonder what the record is actually about. West’s mother, whom the record is named for? West’s relationship to God? Or West’s relationship with his uber-famous wife and their four children? By the end of it, it’s not clear if West himself even knows.
More than half of this album is complete filler. No one’s missing “Okok,” “24,” or “Remote Control.” A soulful choir is not enough to save “Never Again.” On this record, there is none of the production genius we’ve come to expect from West. There’s no signature burst of horns, no deep-cut oldie sample—none of the inventiveness that makes West one of the best producers in the game. And it’s not because West doesn’t have it in him. He produced Teyana Taylor’s KTSE in 2018, just three years ago, and the resulting record is polished and sleek, with not one dead note in sight. Where’d that West go? Why does his own music have to be so cumbersome? Where’s the joy? Where’s the fun?
That’s not to say there aren’t highlights. There are, and they include: “Hurricane,” which is carried by collaborator The Weeknd; “Jonah,” bearing a mesmerizing hook by Houston singer Vory; and “Jesus Lord,” which finally delivers the unflinching Kanye bars the rest of the album is mostly missing. In “Jesus Lord,” West finally stops hiding behind his marketing campaign, collaborators, and ski masks. He raps eloquently and unabashedly to and about his mother, questioning: “If I talk to Christ and I bring my mother back to life/ And if I die tonight will I see her in the afterlife?” Another clear high point is the much-anticipated Jay-Z verse on “Jail,” which is probably one of Jay’s most successful feature verses in several years. But with all due respect to Hova, it definitely does not bely the return of The Throne, regardless of whatever wishful thinking may have transpired in the studio.
Worst of all, any poignant moments are stepped on by a series of disturbing choices that cannot be overlooked. West chose to remix “Jail” with Marilyn Manson, who is facing disturbing rape and abuse allegations, and rapper DaBaby, who recently lost a slew of festival gigs for unrepentantly doubling down on a homophobic rant earlier this summer. West’s weak attempt at taking on “cancel culture” falls about as flat here as his own failed presidential run. DaBaby manages to find a different flow on this verse (an exceptionally rare situation), but you can’t really enjoy it: In it, he’s doubling down on homophobia, blaming others for his financial losses, and trying to use his daughters and their well-being for sympathy.
It’s sad that West built all of this hype around a record that should have been his magnum opus. Instead, on display for everyone is his self-preoccupation, circular thinking, and disdain for anything resembling accountability. Perhaps if he hadn’t again spent so much time ginning up media hype surrounding the album, he could have taken his time to edit. And that’s the thing that’s missing most from this record, with all its myriad problems: No one edits West anymore, not even himself. And that’s a damn shame.