Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Kanye West Donda

Getting Out Our Dreams/Def Jam/UMG
Getting Out Our Dreams/Def Jam/UMG

It’s not possible to pinpoint the one moment that Kanye West’s brain broke, since brain breakage is generally not a singular dramatic event. But it’s definitely possible to pull up a YouTube video and pinpoint one of the moments that Kanye West’s brain broke. In September of 2009, West was booked to perform on the first episode of The Jay Leno Show, the ill-fated and short-lived experiment in which NBC put Leno on TV every night in prime time. West was there to do “Run This Town” with Jay-Z and Rihanna, but other things were happening, too, and West was made to give public penance.

The night before that Leno show, Kanye West had gone onstage at the VMAs and snatched the mic out of Taylor Swift’s hand, mid-acceptance speech. The public outcry was loud and immediate, and it has shaped the narratives of both artists for the past 12 years. In the immediate aftermath, West was shaken and apologetic, and he told the world that he had fucked up and that he knew it. Leno kept pressing. Leno brought up Donda West, Kanye’s mother, who had died after plastic surgery less than two years earlier: “What do you think she would’ve said about this?” West, visually shaken and wiping away tears, didn’t speak for a long moment, beyond an “um” and a sigh. Leno continued: “Would she be disappointed in this? Would she give you a lecture?” West, clearly ambushed, tried to come up with some response: “I need to, after this, take some time off and analyze how I’m gonna, you know, make it through the rest of this life.”

The sudden death of Donda West was not part of the grand future that Kanye had planned. It’s possible to divide Kanye’s entire career into the eras before and after his mother left him. Maybe every artistic move that Kanye West has made since then has been, in one way or another, an attempt to process that loss and the resulting spiral. Maybe every impossibly aggravating PR stunt, every dumbfoundingly awful public statement, has been a direct result of that unmooring. Before that VMA moment, Kanye had near-unlimited public goodwill. Even after blasting George W. Bush mid-Katrina telethon, the applause for Kanye West overwhelmed the boos. On that Leno show, maybe West wasn’t just shaken at the reminder of his loss. Maybe he had to process, in real time, the idea that someone would invoke his late mother’s memory every time he fucked up for the rest of his life.

Five years after his mother’s death, Kanye West announced that he was founding DONDA, a vaguely defined “design company.” Now, nine years after that, West has invoked his mother’s name again with the release of Donda, the album that seemed like it would never arrive. Maybe it never should’ve arrived; shortly after Donda finally hit streaming services yesterday, West claimed on Instagram that Universal had put the album into the world without his approval. Maybe the album wasn’t done. Maybe it never would be done.

Before it was a proper album, Donda was a hijink, a shenanigan, a slow-motion attention-grabbing performance-art stunt. Maybe that’s all that Kanye West wanted it to be. At a series of grand-scale listening events, West stood in the middle of stadiums, with red pantyhose pulled low over his face, and played the in-process album for his assembled hypebeast massive. At the last of those, in his Chicago hometown, West sat on the porch of a replication of his childhood home, flanked by music-business pariahs Marilyn Manson and DaBaby. Maybe West didn’t understand that Manson and DaBaby are pariahs for a reason — for, respectively, sexual assault and unabashed victim-complex homophobia, neither of which is a victimless crime. Maybe West simply didn’t care. Maybe Kanye West just sees himself as a member of the celebrity-pariah class and stands in solidarity with all of his comrades, right or wrong.

Given the noisy and unending chaos surrounding its release, it’s remarkable that Donda holds together as well as it does, both as an album and as an event. The version of Donda that we have now is presumably not the final product. “Final product” has been a meaningless concept, where Kanye West is concerned, ever since he told us that he would fix “Wolves.” There’s already been one change. “Jail Pt. 2,” which replaces an underwhelming Jay-Z guest verse with a defiant one from DaBaby, has already been added to the tracklist since the album’s release. (At different points, West blamed both DaBaby’s management and his own label for that track’s absence.) If West still has any control over Donda, he may very well exercise it. He may even attempt to take the album out of circulation. But in its elusive current state, Donda is a better album than anyone had any right to expect.

To be clear: Donda is not a great album. It’s nowhere near a great album. Already, some West apologists — and god knows he has plenty of apologists — are attempting to advance the notion that Donda is Kanye West’s best album. This is absurd bullshit. The exuberant, inventive Kanye West of College Dropout and Late Registration is long gone. So is the Kanye West of 808s & Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus — the towering figure ready to use his vast platform to twist rap spectacle into strange and beguiling new shapes. What we now have is sullen-billionaire Kanye West, an inveterate cool-hunter who, at his best, can ride various waves and present himself, however briefly, as a main character in a chaotic rap landscape. But the best version of that Kanye West shows up on Donda, and the result is easily his best album since The Life Of Pablo.

Among many other things, Donda stands as proof that cancel culture does not exist. Even after all this bullshit he’s pulled in the past five years, Kanye West remains capable of casting virtually anyone in a supporting role in his monument to self. Donda has stars on stars, and most of them are operating at peak power. When Jay-Z shows up on “Jail,” the first proper song from Donda, it’s not peak Jay. Instead, Jay gets through his awkward verse on charisma and accumulated goodwill. He lightly chides his old friend and evokes Donda West’s memory, the way Jay Leno once did. But everyone else? Everyone else puts in work.

On “Hurricane,” the Weeknd harmonizes with a gospel choir and hits grand wounded-angel notes while Lil Baby goes deep into his mournful zone. On “Jesus Lord,” Jay Electronica hears the pyramids speak and splutters out his best verse in years. On “Keep My Spirit Alive,” Westside Gunn and Conway drop the goon schtick and get vulnerable. On “Jonah,” Lil Durk, a Chicago star who was brutally clowning Kanye a few months ago, speaks movingly about the loss of his close friend King Von. Fivio Foreign and Lil Yachty and Baby Keem, all clearly understanding that this is a huge look for them, are fiery and purposeful, like they’re longtime bit-part actors called up for single-scene roles in a Quentin Tarantino film. Throughout, Playboi Carti brings bugged-out textures and space-goon energy. All of these people are stars in their own right. All of them are perfectly happy to be part of Kanye West’s vision, even if the Kanye West who formulated this vision is the Kanye West who we’ve all watched in complete dismay these past few years.

And even if that vision isn’t yet complete, Donda is definitely Kanye West’s vision. It’s Kanye West, one of the most egocentric figures in pop-music history, discussing all the public trials that have brought him low. In various moments on Donda, I feel actual sympathy for Kanye West, and I didn’t think that was ever going to happen again. The voice of Donda West appears again and again, speaking with poise and pride about herself and her god and her son. Sometimes, West addresses his late mother directly: “Mama, you was the life of the party/ I swear, you brought life to the party/ When you lost your life, it took the life out the party.” Sometimes, he invokes her memory just as directly: “If I talk to Christ, can I bring my mother back to life?/ And if I die tonight, will I see her in the afterlife?” If you’ve ever loved Kanye West, I don’t see how you could be immune to this.

West brings similar levels of candor when he talks about the weirdness that comes with living all the chaos of your life in the public eye: “I be goin’ through things I had to wrote/ Celebrity drama that only Brad’ll know.” He sometimes sounds wounded and humiliated when he discusses his in-progress divorce and all the things that brought it on: “I don’t wanna die alone/ I don’t wanna die alone/ I get mad when she gone/ Mad when she home.”

West is far less sympathetic when he talks about himself as a victim of a fickle public. On Donda, West never talks about Donald Trump, or his own bullshit presidential campaign, or the question of whether slavery was a choice. Instead, he describes himself in mythic terms, as someone who refuses to bend: “Look at the problems and issues I’m livin’ through/ They tryna drown me, I rise to my pinnacle.” Sometimes, he even tries to shame the public that has shamed him: “Did what I want, and I say what I want/ And I thought you was with me, like how you get sensitive?” On “Jesus Lord,” the son of long-imprisoned gang leader Larry Hoover appears and thanks Kanye for bringing his father’s cause to the White House. That speech feels like Kanye West’s implicit attempt to argue that he embraced Donald Trump for some greater good. I remain unconvinced. (This being a Kanye West album, we also get a few hilarious lyrical clunkers. My favorites: “God the Father like Maury,” “Cussin’ at your baby mama, guess that’s why they call it custody,” “I don’t do commercials ’cause they too commercial.”)

Musically, Donda has the most in common with 808s & Heartbreak, the last album that West made while processing a public breakup and widespread disdain. He warbles robotically as often as he raps, and the music is dominated by sparse, gut-rumbling synth-tones. Phil Collins’ early divorced-dad solo albums are a clear sonic touchpoint, but West also goes heavy on the futuristic bass-blurts of Brooklyn drill. Even on the simplest, most spaced-out tracks, West brings in multiple co-producers. It’s like he’s keeping people on retainer just to get the perfect synth-vwerp at the perfect moment. That requires vision. Kanye West still has vision.

But even if Donda recalls some of the out-there textures of 808s & Heartbreak, it’s no 808s. Donda doesn’t have that sharpness of focus, that bleak melodic force. It doesn’t move the same way. The album is also way, way too long, and it often blurs into the background, transforming into spartan and architectural background music. If you put on Donda while you’re reading or cooking or cleaning your house, you might sometimes forget that you’re hearing a Kanye West album. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. West understands how to deploy electronic minimalism, how to make mood music.

West also understands his own legend, and he refers back to it again and again over the course of Donda. Jay-Z isn’t the only old collaborator on Donda. The first voice on the album belongs to Syleena Johnson, the singer who did the Lauryn Hill interpolation on “All Falls Down” 17 years ago. There’s more Lauryn Hill on Donda; but this time, West has the pull to get an actual “Doo Wop (That Thing)” sample, rather than just an interpolation. West’s recent gospel phase is still with us, too, even though his Sunday Service choir mostly sounds like it’s being drowned in Auto-Tune murk on Donda. The clearest callback to the Jesus Is King era might be the baffling decision to bleep all cuss words, both from West and from his collaborators. This isn’t as intrusive as it might’ve been, but it definitely doesn’t make the album more listenable.

Donda is a messy and indulgent splurge of an album. It’s sometimes interminable, sometimes irritating, sometimes moving, sometimes beautiful. But even at its most tedious, Donda is never predictable. For the past few years, West has mostly brought car-crash spectacle to the world. Donda is still car-crash spectacle, but it’s car-crash spectacle as art, rather than just as plea for attention. Still, Donda is getting plenty of attention. The album’s first-day streaming totals are insane, which means that spectacle works. Kanye West has proven that his can still captivate millions upon millions. I don’t know how many of those millions will return to Donda a year from now. I don’t know whether I’ll return to Donda a year from now. For now, though, Donda is a hell of a thing to witness. I’m mostly glad that it exists.

Donda is out now on Getting Out Our Dreams/Def Jam/UMG.

more from Premature Evaluation