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Thursday, December 09, 2021
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Kanye West performing at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City, 2011

Cleanse your sins with ‘Donda’

Kanye West is a new man. Or should we call him Ye, as that’s what he officially applied to change his name to. Whether anyone calls him that or not, it’s just one of the many changes the man formerly known as Kanye West has gone through since his last release, JESUS IS KING in 2019.

It’s fitting that Kanye finished Donda living in Mercedes Benz Stadium, where the Atlanta Falcons play, because coming off JESUS IS KING is comparable to coming off blowing a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl. But there’s been plenty of other headlines swirling around the media circus that follows Kanye. Kim Kardashian filed for divorce from him in February, ending the reign of the superstar power couple. He lost a presidential election, but was barely on any states’ ballots to begin with. He also reportedly got friend-zoned by a Russian model.

But it hasn’t been all bad for Kanye. In March, he became the estimated richest Black American ever. Netflix acquired the rights to a documentary series about him, and that will surely build his reputation and influence as much as his ego and vanity.

Unfortunately for the increasingly dwindling crowd who are able to look past this publicity drama and concerning behavior, the music of Kanye West continues to decline with Donda, which dropped after lots of speculation and tabloid chatter.

The album, though clearly following its own vision and direction, is sprawling with collaborations. Many renowned producers, like Mike Dean, 88 Keys, and Wheezy have credits across the whole 27-song tracklist. There’s vocal features on almost every song, with Kanye nearly taking a backseat role lyrically. It still feels like Kanye, but the myriad of different voices pull you away from that.

Kanye knows how to produce for his features, and he’s very familiar with their sound. Despite Donda having its own distinctly-focused sound, Kanye is able to warp it to compliment his guests. He does this particularly well on “Junya,” bending the church-style organ used throughout the album into a perfect beat for Playboi Carti.

Though he somehow barely raps through almost two hours of music, Kanye’s flow hasn’t fallen off when he does. On “Off The Grid”, he rhymes deftly over a pumping drill beat, while also letting features Fivio Foreign and Playboi Carti shine on their own.

The lyrics are another story. Even the harder hitting flows on the album have heavy Christian undertones. This doesn’t necessarily diminish the raps themselves but at the very least it’s mightily distracting. It gets very preachy at points. Repeatedly hearing lines like “God please make it alright” 11 songs in with 16 songs to go is draining.

It’s funny that Kanye edited out the swear words on his guests' vocals, considering some of the outrageous things he used to say. It’s also hilarious he actually used the line “The devil my opp.” For someone whose vocals have been such a critical part of their music, from the witty, skillful lyrics to actual vocal style (mostly just mispronouncing words), classic Kanye vocals are sorely missed on Donda.

Classic Kanye production is also lacking. In recent years, his producing style has been shifting from chopped up soul beats to more of a darker, organ and synth bass sound. Track three, “God Breathed”, is reminiscent of other recent Kanye-produced bass-heavy songs like “All Mine” off of Ye and “Come Back Baby” with Pusha T in 2018. 

Those songs, however, were in a transition period. Now, Kanye has fully embraced the sound he’s been creeping towards for years. Donda’s organs and lower register synths give it a dramatic, gospel feel. The beats are technically well-produced, albeit rather simple. That simplicity shines briefly on “Tell the Vision,” when a single measure of a menacing piano loop backs some cut-up Pop Smoke vocals. It’s a refreshing change of pace (only 19 songs in), ironically featuring no Kanye besides shared production credits.

As a listener, it’s highly regrettable that Kanye’s breakup with Kim Kardashian didn’t come in his earlier musical phases. Had that happened earlier, his breakup song could’ve been a funky, heartbreaking soul sample over some classic Ye wit. Instead, “Lord I need you” has lines like “Too many complaints made it hard for me to think / Would you shut up? I can’t hear myself drink” over a flat-out uninspiring beat. Kanye also assures Kim several times throughout the song that “God got me baby, god got the children.” Ah, what could’ve been.

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One of the many things that made earlier Kanye albums like Graduation and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy great is that they’re relatively short, around 13 tracks. They can be listened to all the way through because there’s no excess, no filler. Each song is crucial. With Donda, there’s a serious replayability issue. Even if it was prime Kanye and almost all 27 songs were masterful and enticing, very few people have the patience today to sit through an album that clocks in at nearly two hours.

Kanye West is a new man...Ye, I mean. And Donda is very much a reflection of that. Even if you don’t mind the overbearing Christian overtones, it’s hard to deny that Kanye is straying further and further from his musical prime. There’s no telling what comes next for Kanye, as unpredictability is his only consistent trait. Musically, there’s still flashes of brilliance — though let’s hope this is rock bottom.

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