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Waiting for a Kanye West album to come out, much like being a Kanye fan, is a masochistic, unwinnable experience. The anticipation and cruelty are seemingly the point. For Donda, West’s newest opus, we saw multiple album release dates canceled and several activation events fanning the flames of anticipation before the surprise drop Sunday. This all feels routine by now.
Kanye is the phantom of the hip-hopera. He’s the Grand Misser of Self-Imposed Deadlines. He’s the Sultan of Mood Swings. America’s most famous dad in the midst of divorce proceedings. He’s all these things, having catapulted himself into a zone of self-aggrandizement and self-parody many aspire to and few experience. As his ego has expanded, so has his output grown turgid, and this album, with its indefensible twenty-seven tracks of dubious spirituality, reveals itself as an aural bath of navel-gazing Kanye biblical bullshit. In other words: a new Kanye album.
Often West’s production can help paper over the places where he’s taken lyrical shortcuts. Each record he drops feels less and less like a finished product. Donda sits there like a rough draft, as if West is still tweaking this on his headphones while on his private jet. Even the sampling feels lazier than usual. On “Heaven and Hell,” he snips the vocal from The African Dream’s house classic “Makin’ a Living” and pitches it up into chipmunk zone, and then it evaporates before Kanye goes into the oorah military march territory to which he often defaults. It’s taking an evocative, heartbreaking sample and doing nothing with it besides flattening it out into wallpaper, muddling his elements into a soup that’s less than the sum of its parts.
If there’s ever an artist who screams “only child,” it’s Kanye West. This album is conceptually focused around — and named for — his mother and former manager, who died in 2007 from complications of cosmetic surgery. The album would have been a lot more interesting had West reckoned with this more directly. That he doesn’t makes the whole thing feel like a hollow victory lap, an empty collection of references, like a box of someone else’s junk dropped off at a Goodwill with no context.
It’s hard to imagine what this record is supposed to be the soundtrack for. It’s not a party record. It doesn’t invite introspection. It’s not spiritual outside of literal references. It’s not really a radio record, although “Jail” and “Ok ok” will probably do fine as singles. The only thing this feels apt for is listening to by yourself while scrolling Twitter. It’s disposable and completely forgettable, like so much of culture spat down to us during COVID. An album and a livestream can’t capture the perverse spectacle of West’s IRL escapades (like living in an arena locker room), arguably the real allure of figures like him. This feels like an excuse for a tour in the spirit of his listening parties, not an album worth revisiting.
A few days ago, Kanye brought out DaBaby and Marilyn Manson to join his Chicago homecoming album listening party in a series of increasingly bizarre stunts, the last of which saw him re-create his childhood home and fill it with fake flames. It’s not surprising that many people were not pleased by the seemingly gratuitous inclusion of these two guys, which struck a nerve and created another social media moment. But to what avail? West seems to have given up on even trying to die on a hill of making a point; generating the outrage is the point.
Many of the featured artists are rappers with “Lil” or “Baby” in their names, and that’s apt when the material itself feels emotionally stunted. It’s nice to see elder rap statesmen like Jadakiss make an appearance, after the Lox’s dismantling of Dipset earlier this summer, but heavies like Jay-Z do little to move the needle. Kanye’s own lyrics leave much to be desired: “Man, it’s hard to be an angel surrounded by demons,” for example, on “Jesus Lord pt. 2.” Being a troll is a viable persona in pop music, of course. Lil Nas X has made a career out of it. But the difference between Lil Nas X and Kanye West is that Nas is fighting one side of a culture war with trolling. With West, he’s taking on the whole political axis, including himself and his own supremely incoherent politics. Truly, what could be more American?
It would probably be healthier if people stop treating West on the hyperbolic terms he demands. The dude is damaged and contains multitudes; we get it. Who isn’t, though? Kanye and his fans name-search and seem to get off on any criticism of his work, so here’s some: He’s not really an interesting rapper. It turns out getting everything you’ve ever wanted for a few decades (outside of being able to bring your mother back to life) leaves you with little to say that other humans can relate to. There are many great MCs out there; West just isn’t one of them. His true defining talent is in orchestrating megalomaniacal spectacles where he is simultaneously crucified and deified.
The track “Hurricane” with The Weeknd comes out coincidentally and distastefully on the day Hurricane Ida touches ground on the Gulf Coast, 16 years after Katrina and West’s infamous “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” line. “Hurricane” is another generic snooze-fest with all the usual Kanye production touchstones. He has always been a producer first, but the novelty of his tropes has worn pretty thin at this point. When Kanye is bored or doesn’t know what to do with a track, he layers gospel-infused vocals ad nauseam and sprinkles in some organ. That’s pretty cool, but the instrumentation veers into parody at points.
On “Come to Life,” gratuitous pianos lines and fuzzy guitars sound like Muzak from a jewelry commercial or day spa, raising the question: Is this whole thing camp? Who can say, really, when everything feels like it’s not the final version of a song or an idea? The last four tracks are “Pt. 2” versions of tracks that appear earlier on the album, like an unwanted remix package at a point when you’re ready for it all to be over and starting to wonder if this is laziness or just another way to exploit the streaming analytics.
Kanye’s greatest artistic sin is that he has no editor. Though Rick Rubin in many ways gets too much credit, clearly his editorial hand on Yeezus helped save it from mushy irrelevance. But irrelevance is the direction in which each successive post-Pablo album is veering, like some endless noodling over the same beat into the heavens. This album is flabby dad bod in musical form. Midway through streaming it, a trap jingle for Old Spice came on. It took me 20 seconds to realize this wasn’t one of the 27 tracks off Donda. That’s the type of album we’re talking about here. But if this slog somehow brings you closer to God, more power to you.