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In 2007, at a Chicago State University conference honoring poet Gwendolyn Brooks, Donda West spoke about raising her son. Swelling with pride and quoting lyrics from The College Dropout, the late educator described Kanye as both her beloved kid and the descendant of a long line of black strivers and truth tellers from outside her bloodline, from Marcus Garvey and Brooks, to Ice Cube and KRS-One. What’s striking about the speech, besides Donda and Kanye’s many shared vocal tics, is its scope. From his mother’s perspective, Kanye’s journey could never be captured by just her impassioned parenting or his innate talents; his story encompassed cotton fields and segregated water fountains, Chicago’s L trains and Brooks’ poetry. It took a village.
Donda, Kanye’s 10th studio album, samples that speech multiple times, but never channels its capacity. Although the record, relentlessly teased and finalized over the course of a chaotic month of bombastic listening events, frenzied merch drops, and bizarre livestreams, traffics in grandiosity and immediacy, in practice it is myopic and sterile. It’s a tentpole album whose only idea is bigness, a megachurch packed with pews and collection plates and believers yet devoid of spirit. It is Kanye’s emptiest offering yet.
Donda is more of a geotag than a coherent body of work, Kanye and his legion of collaborators sharing the same space but rarely the same vision or conviction. Some guests bring their A-game, notably Fivio Foreign and Jay Electronica, but even the most inspired performances underscore how purposeless and halfhearted this album is. The verses—all of them lamely purged of profanity—make vague references to faith and redemption, but few guests bare their souls or seem to understand why they are gathered. “Bada the bada the boom/I bada the boom, I bada the bing,” Baby Keem raps at one point. Sure, why not?
There’s no guiding sense of harmony or contrast to the match-ups or the sequencing. The LOX show up on “Jesus Lord pt 2” only because of their recent Verzuz performance. DaBaby and Marilyn Manson appear on “Jail pt 2” seemingly to prop up Kanye’s limitless persecution complex. (Why them and not other pseudo-cancelled celebrities, like say, Nicki, Lil Uzi Vert, or T.I.? Unclear. Perhaps they, Bill Cosby, and Doja Cat’s feet were all unavailable.) The record is constantly trying to bottle lightning that already struck and rekindle controversies it isn’t willing or able to probe, from Jay-Z waving away Kanye’s MAGA days on “Jail” to Larry Hoover Jr. spinning Kanye’s infamous visit to the oval office on “Jesus Lord.”
As on Jesus Is King, Kanye is still trying to wed the prosperity gospel of 1% Christians with black church ecstasy and hip-hop excess. But no amount of exuberant organ (“Junya”), distorted choir (“New Again,” “24”), and biblical imagery (“Jonah,” “Lord I Need You”) can mask the shoddiness of these songs. The production is undercooked and inert. Many of the beats drone on like headaches, looping without builds or riffs. Synths flicker without heat. Bass lines keep time. There are flashes of inspiration in the use of samples, such as “Believe What I Say” flipping Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” and “Praise God” interpolating Donda West’s abovementioned speech, but even these lack the intimacy and texture of the chops from the recent Abstract Mindstate album that Kanye produced in full or the fluidity of any other Kanye record, even Ye. Every beat feels like a proxy of jams past or an unfinished demo.
When Kanye isn’t spitting literal gibberish, his lines are dry and styleless, riddled with self-help drivel, contextless prayers, or clumsy takes on weighty subjects like mass incarceration and mental health. Nearly every line is pedestrian and strained. “Cussing at your baby mama, guess that’s why they call it custody,” he raps on “Lord I Need You.” “Not Wakanda but Wakanda is kinda like what we ‘bout to make/And who gon’ make it? Kan, duh,” he says on “Keep My Spirit Alive,” the line so forced he can’t even maintain the meter. From “God Breathed”: “God, the son, all the glory/God, the father, like Maury.” Technically skilled rapping hasn’t ever been the main draw of a Kanye album, but in the past he was at least driven by a sense of competition—with his peers, with himself, or with listeners’ expectations. Now, he just shrugs into the void.
No particular motivation or passion seems to power Donda. It’s as if Kanye albums have for so long been sold and consumed as watershed moments where culture shifts on its axis that magnitude is just part of the process. Though Kanye has little to say or reveal, he can’t put down the megaphone. There is a vague sense of homecoming to this collection of praise songs, from Kanye recording in the city where he was born, his mother once taught college and his dad one worked as a photoreporter, to him making a more traditional rap album after the born again reinvention of Jesus Is King. His listening events could even be read as prodigal returns of sorts, the failed presidential candidate and troll circling back to his home perch as a world famous musician. But a homecoming, as his mother hints in her speech, is a sensation as much as an event. To return home is to feel the whiplash of time, lost days and hours snapping into focus like epiphanies.
Donda offers no such revelations. Kanye evokes his god and his adversaries with steely discretion, never detailing the trials and tribulations he insists he has endured. His book of Job is stripped of temptations and losses. There are no ultralight beams, no blood on the leaves, no skipped leg days, no dark, twisted fantasies, no drunk and hot girls, no gold diggers, no spaceships, no polos, no teddy bears, no chipmunk squeals, no soul. The album can’t even spare its namesake from this relentless emptiness. On “Donda Chant,” her name is hammered into a bland litany: “Donda, Donda, Donda, Donda.” On the title track, which samples her speech, her words are edited so that she becomes a deity. “Glory, glory, glory,” a chorus of Auto-Tuned voices sings. I pity the fool that waits around for part 2.