Kevin Mazur / Getty Images for Universal Music
While recording Donda, Kanye West paid $ 1 million a day to live in the belly of Mercedes Benz Stadium, in a stuffy room that looked like a prison cell. As with her latest records, her massive new album came in spurts, like a lawnmower spinning for three weeks. Three evenings of stadium viewing – two at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, one at Soldier Field – drew millions of viewers into his process. If you’ve logged into livestreams, you’ve heard scratch vocals, you’ve heard verses added and removed, mixes refined, tracks moved in sequencing – Did he really replace Kid Cudi with Globglogabgalab? You’ve seen Kanye West ride like an angel, burst into flames, do push-ups, dance in a spiked costume. You’ve seen Dababy and Marilyn Manson, fresh out of homophobic comments and abuse allegations, respectively, emerge from a recreation of Kanye’s childhood home. You’ve never seen Kanye’s face. And then, maybe, you gave her new album a spin. Entrance fee for listening to the record: nearly two hours of your time.
Donda is Kanye West’s tribute to his late mother, Dr Donda West, an academic who dominated her life not only as a tutor but also as a music advisor (Kanye described her as his “mom”), and which appears for a single interlude here. (She featured on several other tracks in an earlier release of the album.) But this album is mostly about Kanye – his ongoing account with his faith, his relationship to the music world, the end of his marriage to Kim Kardashian. . Most of the songs that support these ideas sound cobbled together over the past few weeks.
The problem with his recent music is that in recent times Kanye’s process has thwarted his bigger ideas. He seems to be writing songs around changing album release dates instead of fully realized artistic visions. He scrapped entire albums, then produced new ones in a matter of weeks. He works in big blasts of creativity, calls Rick Rubin at the eleventh hour, has fans worried he won’t let Mike Dean sleep. From the excellent Yeezus, the albums came out messy and bloated, like the ones from 2016 Pablo’s life, or light and semi-finished, like you and Jesus is king. This quality control problem also plagues Donda, a gargantuan album full of gestures with interesting music, which rarely sticks the landing on one of them.
By the way, the last time Kanye wrote an album related to his mother was his first foray into a frantic recording process. During the Glow In The Dark tour, the one with the spaceship and NERD, the rapper began to explore his voice flexing with pitch correction technology, initially so he could sing T-Pain’s chorus to “Good Life “live. Then, between tour dates in fall 2008, Kanye recorded 808 and heartache in three weeks, a vessel for his emotions in turmoil since the death of his mother and his break up with his fiancée. He created the single “Love Lockdown” on his blog, then edited it a few days later due to negative fan reception.
“Your prayers have been answered! he wrote on his blog. “There’s a new version of ‘Love Lockdown’ coming up. We used new taiko drums and I sang it again… it’s being mastered now…”
808s was loaded with depressed pop hooks and an icy sonic palette. It opened with a song that kicked off fantasies and crash-landing lovers through the cold Auto-Tune, then extended with a haunting wordless chorus for several minutes. This intro is one of Kanye’s best and most forgiving, gained through writing piercing songs and studying textures.
A similar curvy chorus outro looks back on Donda, on the song “God Breathed”. In comparison, it works more like melatonin. It follows a soft, dancing bassline, choppy vocal sample, singer Vory humming like a frog and Kanye rapping in cut, non-musical phrases, proclaiming “God blew on it.” It is terribly bad.
Over the past few years, Kanye’s sound has grown closer to a sort of hollow excess, defined by epic chord progressions, minimal drums, head-turning guests, and burnt synth lines with little solid rap. DondaThe lethargic sequencing reveals how those prestige-rap cues aren’t always a formula for good music. Throughout the first half, we experience moments of magic – the opera “Jail”, Young Thug’s stealth verse on “Remote Control” – and a resounding failure – Jay-Z’s verse on “Jail”, the lifeless “Ok Ok”. A lot of Donda is a weak amalgamation of several bygone eras of Kanye; the buzzing stampede of “Heaven and Hell”, for example, longs for grandeur and intrigue a la “Flashing Lights”, but comes across more as a self-parody. These songs are almost predictable: insert a change of pace here, insert a rolling guitar solo there. Many of them feel empty, like the aphorisms of Silicon Valley or the concept of “free thought”.
Which sets Donda Aside from Kanye’s recent outings (over 35 minutes longer than the last three combined), it’s that he seems destined for radio. However, unlike the Kanye of ten years ago, Donda-era Kanye follows the radio rules instead of writing them himself. Fan favorite, “Off The Grid,” transforms into a roaring Brooklyn exercise track midway through, with a loaded Fivio Foreign fueling a melodically complex bassline and sustained chorus. But part of the appeal of exercise is how it evokes greatness through refined skeletal elements and negative space – “Grid” overcompensates and, as a result, proves fragile. (Speaking of Brooklyn exercise, with its heavy instrumental piano and lack of drums, “Tell The Vision” with Pop Smoke has to be one of the worst posthumous rap tracks I’ve ever heard.)
The strongest piece of this convoluted musical puzzle is the organ, which goes from its small role to Jesus is king as a powerful complement to Kanye’s voice. On the glorious gospel track “24”, Kanye sings confidently and endearingly, conversing with organ thrusts with the soul of a seasoned singer. And “Pure Souls” pairs Kanye with Roddy Ricch for a dynamic organ-driven collaboration that feels like a fair update of Pablo remarkable “Highlights”. When Kanye sings “This is the new me, so get used to me,” the proposition doesn’t sound too bad, for a moment.
Unfortunately, the “new me” is otherwise indulgent in the service of nothing. Kanye’s explorations of faith are slightly more nuanced than they were on Jesus is king, but they are not particularly deep. (“And I don’t do commercials, because they’re too commercial / Give your all to God and let Jesus pay you back,” says a clunker.) Donda grows an army of guests so large that on some songs, like the sleepy cut “Jonah” assisted by Lil Durk and the Griselda cut posse “Keep My Spirit Alive”, you don’t hear Kanye’s voice for the first few minutes ( and on others, it is not even present). Every Kanye album is common, but it’s the first to consistently drown Kanye himself.
It may be a good thing. The problem with every Kanye album since Pablo was Kanye. He’s become a truly horrible rapper, unable to finish a verse without saying something unforgivable or running out of steam halfway. His arrhythmic word vomiting occasionally worked on Pablo, like on “No More Parties In LA”, because it served the anxiety of his writing. But almost every time he raps Donda, it looks like he’s relearning how to flow and keep the beat. The most damning example here is “Jesus Lord”, in which Kanye fumbles around what could have been a mind-blowing rap, tripping over puffed and slapped takes, sometimes forgetting to rhyme and slowly coming out of the bars like “I’m just trying. reach for stars like Buzz Lightyear. ” Moments like “Lord I Need You”, where Kanye raps with skill and humor, describes his former marriage to his ex-wife as the “best collaboration since Taco Bell and KFC”, are rare.
Donda walks on the water of prog-rap for most of its performance, but reaches a moment of transcendence near its end. The song “Come To Life” pushes Kanye’s voice and spirit to the limit. He sings beautifully about wanting another life and describes his relationship with Kim in that classic, almost Broadway way that only he can: “As those piano keys tumble down and he describes” floating on an understudy. silvery, “you can almost visualize him walking out of that bunker, that stadium, into the freedom that Kanye looks like these days. So you remember he did it all to this deflated balloon of an album, and Kanye returns with a bang on Earth.