Review: With Donda, Kanye West Has Crafted His Most Unforgiving Self-Portrait Yet

Kanye West’s Donda is about human fallibility and the desire for salvation even when we may not deserve it.

Kanye West, DondaAfter a pair of truncated albums, Kanye West again indulges his penchant for excess on his 10th album, Donda, which clocks in at an ambitious 108 minutes. Right down to the hand-written text on its cover, 2018’s Ye was a troubling status update on the rapper’s well-being, while its follow-up, 2019’s Jesus Is King, found West in worship mode. On Donda, he manages to dramatize his struggles with bipolar disorder and commitment to his faith with both more coherency and dynamism than ever before. The album is a grand opus about human fallibility and the desire for salvation even when we may not deserve it.

Across Donda’s 27 tracks, West refuses to let gestures toward the devout limit the questions that he’s asking or his willingness to venture into darker lyrical terrain. In fact, darkness and nighttime are recurring motifs throughout the album, which is named after his late mother and includes samples of the woman, who was an English professor, speaking. On “Praise God,” she says, “Even if you are not ready for the day, it cannot always be night.” Night and day are thus introduced as the album’s thematic poles, with dark and light resonating as states of depression and happiness, as on “Come to Life,” on which West raps, “I’ve been feelin’ low for so long/I ain’t had a high in so long/Night is always darkest ‘fore the dawn.”

This is arguably the most vulnerable and broken that West has allowed himself to appear on record. The instrumental choices follow suit, with West and his collaborators, for example, stripping down “God Breathed” to just an undulating bassline and menacing choral baritones. Likewise, the swarm of demonic chirps that emerge behind West’s vocal on “Heaven and Hell” as he discusses the devil are massive, twisted, and unsettling. If previously there was a sense that West’s foregrounding of his Christianity, something that was always an undercurrent in his work, would stifle his artistry, Donda emphatically disproves that notion.

The album’s guest artists are plentiful and varied, with only three tracks containing vocals solely from West himself. Aside from an uninspired verse from Baby Keem on “Praise God,” and two mediocre appearances from Chicago upstart Rooga, which are highly derivative of the syrupy bars of Lil Durk (who also features here), the guests all bring their A games, and West matches their energy, often benefitting from their style and approach. Central to this is Playboi Carti, who shows up on “Off the Grid,” “Junya,” and “Junya, Pt. 2.” A fruitful collaboration has recently flowered between the two iconoclasts, West’s rapping on “Junya” and “Off the Grid” is more fluid than usual, keeping pace with the Atlanta weirdo’s sudden abbreviations and stream-of-consciousness flow.

Carti, who received some backlash for his apparent infidelity and cad-like behavior toward partner Iggy Azalea, is just one of Donda’s veritable misfit toys—or lost souls. “Jail, Pt. 2” takes the album’s interest in giving voice to, for lack of a better term, compromised perspectives to its logical conclusion when it enlists DaBaby and Marilyn Manson to sing about “going to jail tonight.” DaBaby’s verse isn’t very coherent—just a series of defensive stances that lack West’s no-holds-barred reckoning with personal faults. The track registers as a mere provocation. In part one, West explores the proliferation of virtue signaling without being burdened by the presence of an accused abuser like Manson, and also features Jay-Z calling West out for his support of former president Donald Trump.

Throughout Donda, West is obsessed with truth and skewed perception. On “Pure Souls,” Roddy Ricch wonders, “The truth is only what you get away with, huh?,” suggesting just how much public reception defines what’s fact and what’s fiction. Elsewhere, West is thrillingly unafraid to confront his own contradictions: “I get mad when she gone/Mad when she home/Sad when she gone/Mad when she home,” he admits on “Come to Life,” punctuating his tough self-evaluation with an adventurous combination of jagged synths and piano.

“New Again” grapples with salvation, finding West imploring God to “make me new again,” while acknowledging that he’s repenting for “everything Imma do again.” The song, and the album as a whole, makes profoundly clear that West is aware of the muddled trappings of religion and how it enables his habitual sins. With Donda, he’s crafted his most unforgiving self-portrait yet, one that, like the best works that plumb a person’s inner depths, winds up reflecting our collective imperfections.

Score: 
 Label: Def Jam  Release Date: August 29, 2021

Charles Lyons-Burt

Charles Lyons-Burt covers the government contracting industry by day and culture by night. His writing has also appeared in Spectrum Culture, In Review Online, and Battleship Pretension. He holds a B.A. in Film Studies and English from Vassar College.

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