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‘Donda’ by Kanye West Review: Begging for Brevity


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Features from big names can’t save the superstar’s garrulous new album

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Kanye West during a ‘Donda’ listening event at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on July 22

Photo: Getty Images for Universal Music Group

Kanye West’s two most recent solo albums had barely 50 minutes of music between them. “Ye,” from 2018, featured seven songs created amid a flurry of studio activity in Wyoming. The following year’s “Jesus Is King” was a gospel record, a first for the rapper and producer, and among its 11 tracks were sketches that lasted only a minute or two. Both LPs seemed rushed, light on inspiration and too slight to matter. One hoped for something weightier and more ambitious from Mr. West’s next album, perhaps a release to remind us of the sprawling 2010 masterpiece “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” or something more focused and potent, like the dazzling electro-grind of 2013’s “Yeezus.” Something big that takes up space in the musical landscape, in other words, the way Mr. West’s records used to. 

“Donda” (GOOD/Def Jam), the much-delayed 10th album by Mr. West, which arrived on streaming services under confusing circumstances on Sunday—the rapper claimed on social media that his label uploaded it without his approval—is in fact a record of size, with 27 tracks that stretch for 108 minutes. But despite the broad dimensions of the frame, the content within is dull and anemic, and makes one yearn for something short and forgettable. 

As has been the case with Mr. West’s albums since 2016’s “The Life of Pablo,” which he continued to edit and update even after it came out, the rollout for “Donda” has been chaotic. The LP is named for the rapper’s late mother, who died in 2007 following a cosmetic surgery procedure, and was first mentioned online last year. Multiple release dates since were announced and then missed. Beginning in July, Mr. West hosted a series of live-streamed listening events in stadiums, which featured half-finished tracks and appearances from stars mired in controversy. After a work-in-progress playback in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, he claimed to be living in one of the facility’s locker rooms and said he wouldn’t vacate the premises until the record was complete. This past week, another event took place at Soldier Field in Chicago, the city where Mr. West was raised, adding to the stage a replica of his childhood home.

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Photo from the ‘Donda’ listening session at Soldier Field in Chicago on August 26.

Photo: Jesse Lirola/BFA

And Mr. West had a lot of other things going on while ostensibly working on the record: he recently petitioned to have his name changed simply to “Ye”; his wife, reality star Kim Kardashian, filed for divorce in February; and it’s easy to forget that he actually ran for president in 2020 and received about 60,000 votes for the nation’s highest office.

Whether it is despite or because of that tumult, there are a few solid numbers here that remind us that Mr. West is still capable of emotionally stirring music. “Jail,” the second track, is one of these. With its hypnotic, distorted riff and massed voices, it feels like a call to arms, introducing the record’s main themes—the pain of marital separation (“You made a choice that’s your bad, single life ain’t so bad”), the promise of salvation through a higher power (“God gon’ post my bail tonight”) and the mourning of the rapper’s lost mother. Jay-Z contributes a few verses, affirming his loyalty to his longtime friend while questioning his political affiliations (“Told him, ‘Stop all of that red cap, we goin’ home’”). 

“Off the Grid,” featuring rappers Playboi Carti and Fivio Foreign, has a certain amount of dramatic pull, despite the presence cornball lyrics—“I talk to God everyday, that’s my bestie / They playin’ soccer in my backyard, I think I see Messi,” Mr. West raps. And “Hurricane,” with gospel-drenched vocals from the Weeknd and a fleet guest verse from rapper Lil Baby, merits repeat plays. 

After that, trouble ensues. “Donda” is riddled with monotonous production—many beats borrow from the bass-heavy tension of drill music, but there’s little variation in terms of tempo or dynamics, and spare use of drums sometimes makes the set seem a single lengthy buildup that never pays off. Add to this a dearth of pop hooks and several five-minute songs that should be only two, and you have a record that feels even longer than its stated runtime. The album’s bloated middle stretch, running from track 6, “Praise God,” through the title track in the 15th slot, is a particularly brutal slog, with nothing in it—except for the catchy “Believe What I Say”—to recommend. 

Late in the record, “Donda” turns increasingly to gospel and improves slightly. The production on “Jesus Lord” is nothing special, with a simple drum pattern and a basic chord progression played on organ, but Mr. West manages a nice melody on the chorus and cult rapper Jay Electronica delivers a delightfully dense verse in the record’s middle half, with surreal and knotty couplets like “In Tenochtitlan, they call me Terremoto, El Negro Loco / I shake the tectonic plates of the game if I lay one vocal.” 

Unfortunately, the momentum of “Jesus Lord” is derailed with its coda—a long monologue from Larry Hoover, Jr. , son of the incarcerated Chicago gang leader, which pushes the number to the nine-minute mark. The stumbles continue with the thudding repetition of “New Again,” featuring singer Chris Brown, and “Tell the Vision,” which lays a piano line beneath a repurposed demo by late rapper Pop Smoke and barely even counts as a song. The latter is one of quite a few tracks here that simply sounds off, as if a quick first draft was never revisited. More than anything, Mr. West’s music of the last six years feels careless—rushing to complete songs after self-imposed deadlines, he cuts corners, and both the mixing and mastering are poor. 

After a quiet and meditative track called “No Child Left Behind,” the album ends with a stretch that can only be described as “here’s some more stuff”: Four tracks from earlier in the record are given “Part 2” sequels, as Mr. West swaps out features or, with “Jesus Lord, Pt. 2,” sadistically extends the song’s length even further. When you are unimaginably rich and famous, you run the risk of surrounding yourself with people who flatter you and tell you that you’re a genius. What Mr. West most needs now is someone to tell him “No,” someone who can help him realize a project worthy of his talent. 

 

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