Notes On Kanye, The Church, Grief & ‘Donda’

For a star who has spent over two decades convincing us — and himself — that he is larger than this plane of existence, Donda, Kanye West’s tenth studio album, is a force of gravity that yanks the rapper back down to Earth. Donda houses some of Kanye’s best music in a half-decade; it’s also a self-indulgent bloated beast of an album that takes too long to unfurl the testimonies of the man behind the antics.

The road to Donda has been long. A reasonable starting point is Kanye’s last solo studio album, JESUS IS KING, the gospel rap album that won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Christian Music Album. The gospel influence of that album is the centerpiece of Donda; Kanye’s utilization of gospel inadvertently makes Donda a chilling reflection of the darkest parts of the Church. On “Hurricane,” which features The Weeknd and Lil Baby, Kanye laments that “everybody so judgmental” which… sure, that’s a fair assessment of the world we live in. However, when you’ve thrown the community that built you up to a pack of wolves led by an anti-black president, people have every right to judge you. This is the issue with so much of Donda. Kanye has corrupted Christianity to become a shallow kiddie pool of redundant gospel music tropes through which he aims to absolve himself of any real accountability or valid criticism.

Take “Jail,” for example. Along with three other songs on the album, “Jail” has a “part two.” The first version of “Jail,” which features Jay-Z and Francis & the Lights, contains one of Kanye’s strongest hooks since the Pablo era back in 2016. The song revels in a brash combination of rock, rap, soul, and pop. Kanye bellows “Guess who’s going to jail tonight / God gon’ post my bail tonight.” In this iteration of “Jail,” Kanye is placing his trust and faith in God to bail him out of the metaphorical, emotional, and mental prisons of fame. In the folds of an uncharacteristically abysmal verse, Jay-Z spits, “Hol’ up, Donda, I’m with your baby when I touch back road / Told him, ‘Stop all of that red cap, we goin’ home’.” Initially, it’s an endearing bar, if not an inspiring one. A glimmer of hope for the glory days of The Throne reemerges with some sense of feasibility behind it. Nevertheless, through “Jail pt.2” Kanye proves that even if the “red cap” is gone, his pattern of problematic behavior is not contingent upon what political party he aligns himself with. The sequel to “Jail” features DaBaby, an alleged murderer who recently courted controversy for ignorant comments about HIV and antagonizing Megan Thee Stallion by performing with the man who allegedly shot her, and Marilyn Manson, a man who has been accused of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse by several women including his ex-fiancée Evan Rachel Wood. Suddenly, “Jail” is now a vapid song about being “canceled,” and Kanye has invited two storied abusers to use God as a crutch to evade any kind of retribution for the harm that they’ve inflicted. Unfortunately, it’s almost too on-the-nose that an album so heavily informed by the church harbors multiple violent and abusive men (Chris Brown and Buju Banton also appear on the album). Some things you just can’t make up. If Donda is nothing else, it’s an uncomfortable, chilling, yet necessary reflection of some the darkest evils of the Church,

Donda is the blind leading the blind. With what feels like the spiritual knowledge of two Sunday School sessions, Kanye has corralled a staggering roster of younger artists — most of whom bare their souls and share their testimonies with more depth than Kanye himself. The list of featured artists on the album include Roddy Ricch, Shenseea, Lil Baby, The Weeknd, Jay-Z, Francis and the Lights, Syleena Johnson, Playboi Carti, Fivio Foreign, Travis Scott, Baby Keem, Lil Durk, Vory, Lil Yachty, Stalone, Young Thug, The Lox, Don Toliver, Kid Cudi, Jay Electronica, Pop Smoke, DaBaby, Marilyn Manson, Rooga, Ty Dolla $ign, Conway the Machine, Westside Gunn, Buju Banton, the Sunday Service Choir, and Donda West herself. Named for his mother, Kanye has created an album that is less a showcase of his own rapping skills and more of a display of his talents as a curator. To a lesser extent, there are a lot of eye-roll-inducing Wakanda references and reminders that Black capitalism is still the only lens through which so many people can imagine freedom.

Musically, Donda is impressive. The album is certainly hindered by its overwhelming length, but, at best, Kanye sounds infinitely more comfortable on this path of gospel-rap than the road traveled by on Jesus Is King. As a curator, Kanye is in top form. Donda boasts the best verse of Fivio’s career, a star-making showcase of Shenseea’s versatility, Top 40 radio-ready contributions from Young Thug, and tender vocals from Stalone that pull at every heartstring. The flipside to all of these gorgeous contributions from other artists is that, due to the album’s sequencing, Kanye makes all of these younger creatives bare their souls on an album that should, arguably, be squarely focused on him sharing his own testimonies beyond vapid platitudes. On “Off The Grid,” Fivio raps “I pray that they lower all my **** sentences / I got some demons I’m not even dealin’ with” and then later spits “If you got a voice, then you gotta project it / If you got a wrong, then you gotta correct it.” His entire verse is a visceral examination of a man earnestly trying to recalibrate his life and realign his decisions with a path that properly serves him and his loved ones. An energetic and infectious rapper, these are some of the most honest bars of Fivio’s career. Two songs later, on “Praise God,” Baby Keem slips in two lines that illustrate a seemingly tenuous relationship with his mother despite the general optimistic tone of his verse: “Back when my mama told me that I was challenged / A single Black woman, you know that she petty.” It takes seventeen songs, but Kanye eventually opens up and delivers what is arguably his best verse in five or six years. “Jesus Lord,” a devastating marriage of an allegory and Kanye’s own ruminations on his mother’s passing, is absolutely stunning. It’s on this song where we find the guiding theme of Donda: “And 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?” This search for questions that have no truly satisfying answers is a search that can tear a person apart. You can hear the wear and tear on Kanye’s voice throughout the album, particularly on “24.” In these moments, the man behind the stunts and shows is revealed.

As excruciating as it is to be inundated with an hour and a half of music as layered as this album is, Donda needed to be this long. This is Kanye working through his grief, guilt, shame, love, alcoholism, and hope in real-time. As much as Donda pulls from gospel — the album shifts into shades of reggae (“Lord I Need You”), reignites the industrial roar of Yeezus (“God Breathed”), revives the poppier melodies of Graduation (“Moon” and “Remote Control”), continues his legacy of slick sample flips (“Believe What I Say”), and pioneers some sort of union between rave music and gospel (“Heaven and Hell” and “Praise God”). There’s a lot of great music on this album, but it’s not packaged prettily because grief is not a pretty process, let alone a linear one. Of course, that doesn’t excuse that some songs, particularly the Pop Smoke-featuring “Tell The Vision,” simply add nothing to the album or its message. Donda is the product of a genius locked in his own cluttered and overwhelmed mind. As a matter of fact, parts of the promotional tour for the album felt Kafkaesque; it was like “A Hunger Artist” had sprung to life right before our very eyes. At best, Donda is a soft return to the higher points of Kanye’s musical output. At worst, the album is a stern reminder that certain shameful values still reside in his conscience — red cap or not.

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