A dark, confusing, rambling album with an unacceptable feature: it’s time to stop idealising the shock-rapper’s idea of “bravely” defying public opinion
I first discovered Kanye West through an early 2010's obsession with a Dash-owning, Playboy-modelling Kim Kardashian and her band of merrymen (a Brady-Bunch-on-acid family who doubled as co-stars). The seemingly quiet rapper's first appearance on Keeping Up came in season seven, appearing on an episode in which he threw out Kim's entire closet, despite some slight protesting from Kimberly (understandably, over a Louis Vuitton). Out went the studded-boots, fur, and velour tracksuits and in was a series of nude-coloured items, body-con dresses, and ready-to-Instagram latex outfits.
As hilarious as it is worrying, Kim subtly reassures viewers who may find this mass-clearing manipulative, "Kanye has definitely inspired me to be a bit more of an individual"; a statement which is one for Kardashian behavioural theorist MJ Corey to have a field day with.
My braces-clad 13-year-old self was fascinated and outraged. Who was this rapper-turned-closet-cleaner, so determined to bin a Birkin? Who was this individual, so passionate about being with the love of his life, provided he could mould her into a creative image which matched his own? I was intrigued.
2013's Yeezus quickly became the soundtrack of my bus ride to school. Bound 2, a particular favourite of mine, produced an accompanying music video just as iconic as the track itself, as a topless Kim bounces on Kanye's lap aboard a Honda motorbike, zooming past idyllic mountain scenes, as West raps, "I wanna fuck you hard on a sink.” West would later compare the two to Romeo and Juliet; it was all very romantic.
Fast forward to 2021: KimYe are divorced, Kanye has retreated to a $14m ranch in Wyoming (a Bezos version of a bachelor pad), and has found God – establishing a weekly Christian “Sunday Service” complete with a Gospel album, 2019’s Jesus Is King.
Donda, named after and paying tribute to West’s late mother, Dr. Donda C. West, was a hotly-awaited release with several pre-release “listening events” creating unprecedented hype. West reportedly took residence inside a Chicago stadium as he promoted and finished the album, even re-building his childhood home to scale inside the venue. At the end of one of several events, he even re-enacted his wedding, complete with Kim herself under a long white veil; this was after his “ascension to God” in which wires and a spotlight created a beam-me-up-Scotty effect before the audience.
"..the lack of feminine presence on Donda, is at the helm of the album’s downfall."
Then, apparently against Kanye’s request, a supposedly unfinished Donda was officially released unto the world and became West’s 10th album to top the Billboard charts.
Reader, in the eternal words of Arctic Monkeys in the opening moments of I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor: “Don’t believe the hype”.
The album’s concept is a long, wandering one and, sadly, does not provide a coherent tribute to West’s mother as indicated. The opening track, Donda Chant, sees the repetition of Kanye’s late mother’s name in time with her final heartbeat; a sombre, thoughtful tribute that seems to maintain the only direct line of connection with the album's “muse” alongside title track Donda, with some minor references throughout. Pitchfork critic, Dylan Green, argues a larger tribute to Kanye’s mother was provided in the scrapped track, Never Abandon Your Family, which in its exclusion “robs the album” of the maternal wisdom and feminine presence Donda originally sought to pay tribute. Undeniably, whether disregarded or defied, the lack of feminine presence on Donda, is at the helm of the album’s downfall.
Indeed, the overarching theme of the album could be argued to be Kanye’s supposedly unwavering relationship with faith. Heavily religious themes loosely bind the album, evident in tracks like Pure Souls, Heaven and Hell, and God Breathed; a synthetic number with a pulsating beat complete with backing Gregorian, monk-chants in which West reconciles with hardships as he turns to God, “I don’t care ‘bout the lawyer fees [...] God will solve it all for me.”
Lord I Need You sees West hint at marital differences and Kim's potential infidelity (“Three hours to get back from Palm Springs, huh? / Who you know spend an hour in Walgreens, huh?”), ultimately turning to self-love (“How you tryna say sometimes it’s not about me? / Man, I don’t know what I’d do without me”) and, allegedly above that, his love for God (“Lord I need You to wrap Your arms around me / I give up on doin’ things my way”). Lord I Need You particularly exemplifies West’s tendency to be distracted by fleeting ideas, with multiple Gospel, Rap, Hip-Hop, Lo-Fi, high-energy and relaxed bursts of sound unsatisfyingly appearing and disappearing across the track’s three-minute length. This inability to follow through on a singular concept plagues Donda, making this seemingly eternal album feel like it lasts even longer.
The record largely stands in the shadow of its collaborators; for better and worse. Tracks on Donda often escape from Kanye and are dominated by featured guests, such as Lil Durk and Vory’s exploration of grief on Jonah, and Fivio Foreign and Playboi Carti’s central role on Off The Grid, which borrows a catchy drill beat from across the Atlantic. Hurricane stands as Kanye’s most coherently insightful and commercially successful track on the album, although arguably the Weeknd and Lil Baby’s dealings in the track contribute to this just as equally as West’s.
"...it is time we reckon with the ugly side of this self-indulgent 'trailblazer', who believes himself to be both a missionary and Messiah."
Additionally, Jail (not to be confused with Jail pt 2) marks the “return of the Throne” with a Jay-Z collaboration, who, perhaps too lightly, dismisses Ye’s dangerous and ill-informed support of Donald Trump with the line, “Told him, stop all that red cap, we goin’ home.” A slightly hair metal-esque electric-guitar plonks away, underscoring each rapper’s flow, until the track “breaks down” with a metal-clinking, drum-bashing finale with all the energy of a student nursing a HIVE hangover. It’s not the pair’s greatest or most creative collaboration, but it certainly isn’t unlistenable.
While many reviewers praise the devil-may-care attitude of West in his defiant, artistic refusal of creative norms or “mainstream rap”, it is time we reckon with the ugly side of this self-indulgent “trailblazer”, who believes himself to be both a missionary and Messiah. The inclusion of several artists accused of misconduct on Donda echoes the repeatedly troubling behaviour of West, often dismissed as eccentric and the price the listener must pay for his creative genius. What Kanye may argue is an attempt at coming for “cancel culture”, in the inclusion of accused rapist and sex offender Marilyn Manson, who multiple women - including Evan Rachel Wood, Phoebe Bridgers, and Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell – have publicly shared their experiences with, and DaBaby, after a slew of homophobic comments, veers beyond ignorance, into highly offensive.
Specifically, Kanye’s disregard for women cast me back to a history of misogyny first foreshadowed in that closet-cleaning episode of Keeping Up, as he moulded Kim into a woman who could match his image. West grabbing a microphone from the hands of a 19-year-old Taylor Swift as she accepted an MTV VMA; slut-shaming ex-girlfriend Amber Rose on Twitter; proclaiming that Bill Cosby is an innocent man; deeming Planned Parenthood as white supremacists doing the Devil’s work; and praising T.I.’s yearly gynecologist check-up to ensure his 18 year-old daughter is still a virgin.
How much of West’s love for God and Christian values becomes negated when accused rapist and sex offenders feature on his album? As a choir repeatedly sings “Guess who’s going to jail tonight?” over the unnecessary and forgetful Jail pt. 2, I couldn’t help but hope the answer was Manson.
All in all, the line between worshipping and being worshipped becomes blurry for Kanye. A man who once denounced materialism in The College Dropout days has become clouded by money and yes-men too afraid to ask him to edit down the shockingly distracted husk of an album. West neglects to speak of the struggles of others, an ignorance older tracks like We Don’t Care used to condemn, especially during the wake of a global pandemic – instead he narcissistically praises God for always looking out for him; an easy musing to make when you’re a billionaire. Roisin O’Connor’s viral review of Donda for The Independent rated the album zero stars, given the collaboration with several accused sexual abusers. I will join her in also giving the album a zero and ask for listeners and critics to re-examine their excusals of men like Kanye, who actively protect and excuse the behaviour of men like Bill Cosby and Marilyn Manson. Instead, we must think of the women, sexual assault survivors, and members of LGBTQ+ community that West has effectively insulted by misusing his platform (again).
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