Kanye West’s Sprawling ‘Donda’ Encapsulates His Greatest Love — for Himself

It’s impossible to evaluate Kanye West’s new music without considering everything that comes with it. Not just the unfocused pageantry leading up to the release of his long-delayed 10th album “Donda” — with its multiple listening events and release dates, a still-unavailable $200 stem player that allows users to remix any song and the 11th hour additions of controversial Marilyn Manson and DaBaby features — but also the multiple, very public years of Kanye reckoning with his own mental illness. Years that included becoming a gospel artist, a 2020 Presidential bid (and the promise of another one in 2024), and a divorce from his wife Kim Kardashian. Even (maybe especially) if you are a fan convinced of West’s genius, he seems determined to test your faith by making one distressing public statement after another while undermining his own artistic legacy with projects that he delays and revises endlessly before finally delivering them, somehow rushed, uncertain and incomplete. Where once his brilliance shone through every note, clearly and unambiguously, that is no longer the case. 

And so, “Donda” is a fulfillment of everything that we know of Kanye West, and for better or worse, everything that he has become, including an overindulged troll who knows he’s got the ear of the whole world. At a sprawling 27 tracks, West not only fulfills every idea he presented at those listening sessions — some of which were reportedly created just hours before their debut, scotch-taped into place with the monolithic self-assurance that only Ye possesses — but lays bare the vulnerabilities and shortcomings of his so-called artistic growth. A purported tribute to his late mother that has evolved into an unwieldy embodiment of talent, ambition and ego, “Donda” with its artless black cover, is a grandiose mess that encourages you to be generous enough to wait to see if it proves to be a masterpiece, but offers immediate alarm bells that sadly it just isn’t.

Syleena Johnson performs the opening track “Donda Chant,” an inauspicious act of repetition that sounds like four or five different tries by the Chicago singer to create a musical meme that West never settled on, so he just included them all. “Jail,” featuring a verse by Jay-Z that first thrilled at the premier listening event, strikes the right balance between Kanye’s born-again “we’re all sinners” belief system and Shawn Carter’s effortless, measured reflections on the legacy he and West created together, and what they are carrying with them now (“Not me with all of these sins, castin’ stones / This might be the return of The Throne”). West and his co-producers 88-Keys, Mike Dean and Dem Jointz don’t get around to actually dropping a beat until the last 40 seconds of the song, an annoying indication of how good the track could be if they brought all of its parts together; instead, West brings the same instrumental back at the end of the record for “Jail, Pt. 2,” replacing Jay with Marilyn Manson and DaBaby in some act of “laying with sinners” that only gives these two justifiably criticized individuals a platform to promote their martyrdom.

It’s choices like this that are the most maddening, because West isn’t even interrogating a belief system, as he arguably was when he verbally dueled with T.I. on “Ye vs. The People.” West has reached a place in his career where he doesn’t even feel compelled to make a point, so when DaBaby raps “I said one thing they ain’t like, threw me out like they ain’t care for me / Threw me out like I’m garbage, huh? / And that food that y’all took off my table / You know that feed my daughters, huh?” it qualifies as nothing more than a pathetic misdirection from a person unwilling to confront the consequences of their actions. Following “Jail,” “God Breathed” similarly codifies West’s Biblical fealty as an expression of self-aggrandizement; with an instrumental that feels carved from the bleak mechanical minimalism of his 2012 album “Yeezus,” the rapper shows no fear as he raps, “I don’t care ’bout the lawyer fees / I don’t care ’bout your loyalties / God will solve it all for me.” Of course, after enlisting Playboi Carti and Fivio Foreign for “Off The Grid,” he teams up with The Weeknd and Lil Baby for “Hurricane,” disguising a comeback narrative as a moderate dose of humility (“I was out for self / I was up for sale, but I couldn’t tell”). Truthfully it’s not so difficult to believe in the sincerity of a rapper’s conversation to a more faith-based life, but when the rapper is the phase-prone Kanye West and his church is shared by televangelist fraudster Joel Osteen, it truly requires the listener to be selective about what values to absorb from these verses, and which to chalk up to a literal holier-than-thou version of hip-hop largesse.

Travis Scott offers a blistering verse at the top of “Praise God” after a speech by West’s late mother, but fellow guest star Baby Heem lacks Scott’s focus, quickly layering filters over his meandering lyrics to disguise the fact that he says almost nothing (“Tame Impala, stay outside”) in more than half of them. Certainly it speaks to West’s stature that he can recruits so many high-profile guest stars for his record, but the end result renders the rapper’s vision in terms more similar to a DJ Khaled album than something like “Cruel Summer,” a revolving door without much cohesion or connective tissue. He features guest stars sixteen times in the first ten tracks of the album, and that includes one, “Believe What I Say,” where there are none — well, except for the most conspicuous sample on the album, of Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing).” 

“Junya,” which precedes it, features Playboi Carti, and sounds a lot like the “old Kanye,” from its title spotlighting his obsessions with fashion designers, but “Believe” goes back even further, at least to “Graduation” if not all of the way to “College Dropout,” as he reshapes an iconic riff with seemingly no effort and turns it into the perfect pop banger that pays tribute to the original artist and showcases his skill at the same time. And so, at this point in his career, it’s the combinations of these different eras, different personas, that defines him, in some cases showing how much he’s grown or changed, and in others, how much we might wish he hadn’t. What’s more frustrating is how sloppy some of that growth gets manifested here: when his Sunday Service Choir finally makes an appearance on “24,” their usually peerlessly precise singing sounds shaggy and improvised. Later, when they return for “New Again,” he uses them as a coda (after Chris Brown of all people) instead of integrating them into the rest of the song.

By the time West gets to the title track “Donda,” it’s just no longer clear what he really wants to accomplish with the record — celebrate his mother, or use clips of her speeches to have her celebrate him? And then after what’s really the final song, “No Child Left Behind,” which you can feel confident Kanye came up with the name for long before he wrote down any lyrics, he pivots back into those Part Twos and remixes, which makes the record a good value for the $10 you may have spent on iTunes but it’s just hopelessly padded and without enough purpose to tie it all together. Is it great that there’s an 11-minute version of the Gesaffelstein and Swizz Beatz-co-produced “Jesus Lord” featuring guest verses from Jay Electronica & the LOX? Sure. But why do we need two versions at all?

Ultimately, what we come back to are the same questions that Kanye West inspired when he first embarked on his Sunday Service tour: can one of the most egotistical artists in modern music history — even justifiably so — fundamentally change because of a spiritual epiphany he says he experienced? Or at the very least, can he combine his endlessly inventive pop sensibilities with the value system, philosophical ideas and musical identity of gospel? The answer, at least to the second one, feels like a confident yes, but at this point Kanye West has been indulged too many times to do what he wants when he wants to truly accept the higher calling of a presence guiding and shaping him. Or more accurately, one guesses he already did accept that presence — his ego. It feels like too much to hope after “Donda” that he somehow gets a little bit of humility, but before his next album cycle, he at least needs to hire an editor.

Donda” released Aug. 29 on Apple Music.