Review: Kanye West delivers his first magnum opus in five years with ‘Donda’

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West prays before tens of thousands at his first of three listening parties.

The 27-track album floors longtime fans

In the last three years since the summer of 2018, Kanye West has gone through multiple phases. Some were for the better, such as convincing former president Donald Trump to pardon innocent men and releasing them from prison. Other phases put West in a less favorable position in the media, such as donning “the red cap” or his failed run for presidency.

After a tumultuous few years, West went through yet another self-imposed exile and retreated from the spotlight since Nov. 2020. Without a single tweet, Instagram post or public sighting, fans were beginning to wonder where Kanye had gone. As it turns out, West was crafting his next magnum opus: ‘Donda’.

After the album title’s announcement, it was clear that this new project would be one of his most personal, intimate and beloved to date. Donda is the name of West’s late mother, who passed away at the age of 58 from complications following simultaneous surgeries in 2007. Since her passing, West seldom spoke about her on record, and even broke down on stage in 2013 attempting to perform his song dedicated to her, ‘Hey Mama’.

Throughout the multiple release parties hosted across the nation ranging from Las Vegas to Atlanta to Chicago, the album was teased time and time again with alternate tracklisting and features. With every listening event that came and went, fans’ hopes had grown as they believed that it would have to be released sooner than later.

With the final listening party and release event being announced in his hometown of Chicago, attendees knew that they would be in for a treat. West had a team rebuild his childhood home as a stage and managed to pull out all of the stops, somehow besting his previous feat of floating to the top of Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Aside from SWAT teams attempting to raid his home, setting himself on fire and seeing Kim Kardashian West in a white wedding dress, two people that stood next to West had some fans scratching their heads. Rapper DaBaby and singer Marilyn Manson were front and center, both with heavy allegations against them.

While West’s message of “No Child Left Behind” can be taken away from the show as he believes anyone who repents is accepted in the eyes of God, it can still be argued that it was done in bad taste.

Depending on the scale of the situation, it can be argued that it’s better to separate the artist and their antics from their musical discography. If we didn’t separate them, Kanye himself would have been canceled in 2005 for calling out George Bush, or 2009 for grabbing the microphone from Taylor Swift at the VMA’s.

Had that happened, fans and the culture never would have been blessed with albums such as ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, ‘The Life of Pablo’ or any other project from him. With that being said, both artists had very small contributions to the project, with a lone verse from DaBaby and mere harmonizing from Manson, who are both on the same bonus track, ‘Jail pt 2’.

At long last in the early hours of Sunday morning, West finally released the album to all streaming platforms. Boasting an overwhelming 33 features, 27 tracks and clocking in at 1 hour and 48 minutes, ‘Donda’ was upon the masses.

Features were hidden from the tracklisting to further entice listeners into checking out the project and seeing which songs their favorite artists are on. The already iconic pitch-black album cover supposedly resembles mourning and loss, which isn’t too far of a stretch considering the album covers the loss of his mother, as well as the tentative divorce from wife Kim Kardashian West.

On the other hand, it could simply be a placeholder cover for an album that was rumored to have been released without his permission. But it’s Kanye, so no one except for maybe Kanye has the meaning and answers to these thoughts and considerations.

While every track across the West’s tenth LP is notable and a standout for its own reason, the first half of the project is much darker than the second half. While the beginning of the album refers to him going to jail and enjoying being single, the latter half of ‘Donda’ looks towards the light of the Lord.

When played from front to back, it’s evident that Kanye is using his recurring “sinner-to-saved” theme that he’s used in past albums including ‘The Life of Pablo’ and ‘JESUS IS KING’.

The most popular tracks to date include ‘Jail’ with longtime collaborator Jay-Z, ‘Hurricane’ with The Weeknd and Lil Baby, ‘Off The Grid’ with Fivio Foreign and Playboi Carti and ‘Praise God’ with Travis Scott and Baby Keem.

While these may be the “hardest” tracks, it would be a downright lie to state that these covered all the bases of the album. There are a plethora of other soulful tracks that force West to slow the tempo down and look within introspectively.

These tracks include ‘Moon’ with Don Toliver and Kid Cudi, ‘No Child Left Behind’ with Vory, and ‘Come To Life’. The latter track arguably has the most beautiful piano solo in modern music, heavily rumored to be done by rapper Tyler, The Creator.

The few tracks that could debatably be deemed skippable include the album’s intro, ‘Donda Chant’, and the late Pop Smoke-assisted ‘Tell The Vision’. While ‘Donda Chant’ almost immediately became a meme for its repetitive use of “Donda”, it’s also a track that holds great weight to Kanye, as he’s never once discussed his late mother on a musical track in the depth that he does on ‘Donda’.

Immediately after listening to ‘Tell The Vision’, it’s clear to most that the interlude from the late Pop Smoke feels out of place and doesn’t fit in with the rest of the album, not to mention that it’s the only song that doesn’t include any vocals from West himself either. Understandably, West put the Pop Smoke interlude on for the album’s thematic elements, as he chants “We made it” repetitively from Heaven, but it still doesn’t sit well with the listener knowing that this could have been left behind for a more cohesive project.

Another gripe with ‘Donda’ is the overall “finished” mixing. A handful of the tracks sound unfinished when close attention is paid. For example, the listener can hear slight crackling at the ending of the Roddy Ricch-assisted ‘Pure Souls’ at times.

Also, the beginning of ‘New Again’ sounds slightly more unclear or grainy compared to the rest of the album. It sounds especially grainy when compared to the beat of ‘Heaven and Hell’ or ‘Hurricane’, where The Weeknd sounds as if he’s recording years in the future.

Recently, West posted a message on Instagram stating, “Universal put my album out without my approval and they blocked ‘Jail 2’ from being on the album.” While ‘Jail pt 2’ is currently on the album and there has been no comment from any Universal representatives, it could explain why the album came out at an unordinary date and time, rather than the standard Friday at 11 p.m. CST.

There’s the possibility that Universal had enough and decided to go forth and release it, or maybe Kanye is teasing that there’s another more finished version out there. Whether or not these rumors are true, the world was just blessed with the longest Kanye West, or as he prefers now, Ye, album to exist.

With the release of ‘Donda’ finally upon the public after months of teasing, it’s clear that the album isn’t going anywhere. It’s already broken a handful of first-day streaming records and is on track to have the biggest first-week sales record of 2021, besting Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘SOUR’. Aside from two filler songs and slight imperfections in the mixing, it’s already being considered an early classic among Ye fans, as only time will tell for the general public in the years to come.

As ‘Donda’ is Ye’s longest album by far, nearing two hours, we’ve received enough new music from the industry icon to hold us over for years to come. However, on the other hand, it’s Ye. We all know that he’ll begin to tease his next album in the coming weeks or months and have us all back on the edge of our seats waiting to see what comes next from the billionaire scene-stealer. As he recently stated on Instagram, “This isn’t the album of the year. This is the album of the life.”

Review: 4.5/5

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