On Donda, A Humbled Kanye West
The rapper’s tenth solo album is the first on which he admits he’s not in control.
“This is not about me.”
The line—sung over angelic piano arpeggios on the 22nd track of Kanye West’s Donda—is a remarkable admission from an artist who, over the course of his career, has deemed himself the “number one living and breathing rock star,” the “f---ing end-all, be-all of music,” “one of the characters of today’s modern Bible,” and, ultimately, “a God.”
For the better part of two decades, everything has been about Kanye West. It wasn’t enough for him to win six Grammys bursting onto the scene in 2004 and 2005; he became a household name declaring, on live television, that George Bush “doesn’t care about black people” and adorning the cover of Rolling Stone imitating Jesus’ crown of thorns. He was exiled from polite society in 2009 after stomping all over a then-19-year-old Taylor Swift’s awards show victory, re-emerging a few years—and critically acclaimed albums—later engaged to arguably one of the only people in the world more famous than he was. Over the past half decade, Kanye has very publicly dealt with his bipolar disorder diagnosis, become a billionaire, hopped aboard the Trump train, and disembarked it to mount a nonsensical presidential bid of his own.
And then, after the 2020 election, Kanye tried something he’d never done before: He shut up.
It may not feel like it, but you haven’t heard from Kanye West in almost a year. You’ve undoubtedly heard a lot about Kanye West, but the rapper himself has taken some sort of a vow of public silence. No tweets, no interviews, no late-night rantings. Cryptic details of his album’s progress trickled out through a roster of collaborators and hangers-on—one fan compared the vague and enigmatic anticipation to being a follower of QAnon—and even Donda’s three stadium-sized listening parties featured only recordings of his new songs, not live renditions. To really get the point across, Kanye obscured himself with various full-on face coverings whenever he stepped out in public. For once, it seemed he truly wanted to let his music speak for itself.
On the track “Pure Souls,” an upbeat Kanye acknowledges this shifting identity: “It ain’t how it used to be. This the new me, so get used to me. ... Devil get behind me, I’m loose, I’m free. Father, Holy Spirit, let loose on me. Father I’m Yours exclusively.”
Kanye’s bars have always had a religious element to them—one of his first songs to make the Billboard charts was 2004’s “Jesus Walks,” and his 2019 LP Jesus Is King won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Christian Music album—but the spirituality on Donda is more mature than anything we’ve heard from West before. Jesus is no longer someone Kanye compares himself to or pushes away to assuage concerns about his life of sin; He’s someone Kanye quite literally cannot live without.
Donda, at its core,is an album about despair—and ultimately conquering it. The project is named for Kanye’s mother—who died in 2007 at age 58 following surgery complications—but just as present throughout its tracks are West’s struggles with mental illness and his divorce from Kim Kardashian earlier this year. After decades of unfettered belief in his own genius, it is at these depths Kanye seems to have finally recognized he could not continue on ego alone.
The album—by far Kanye’s longest at one hour and 49 minutes—is really two projects in one. The first half, characterized by darker tones and harder drums, details the rapper’s descent into isolation. On “Hurricane,” he cops to his own infidelity; on “Jail,” he tries to convince himself “single life ain’t so bad”; on “Ok Ok,” he admits he is anything but.
Donda becomes more redemptive by its eleventh song, “24,” as listeners are hit with a wall of sound supplied by a gospel choir. “Dear God, make it alright,” the chorus sings. “Only You can make it alright. Dear Lord, make it alright. Nothing else ever feels right.” Kanye joins in moments later, repeating over and over again that “God’s not finished” and “We gonna be ok.” As his voice cracks, you can hear a broken man desperate to convince himself the words are true.
Some critics have pointed at the project’s length to make the case that Donda is bloated, in serious need of an editor. They’re right. Kanye has cultivated a reputation—particularly with his later work—of crafting airtight albums with little to no filler or fluff. West dumped three-and-a-half hours of new music on veteran music producer Rick Rubin ahead of 2013’s Yeezus; the pair worked tirelessly for weeks whittling the album down to its strongest 40 minutes.
Donda, by contrast, only expanded as the rollout wore on, from 14 songs at Kanye’s first listening party to 21 at his second two weeks later. By the time the album was finally and unceremoniously dumped onto streaming services the morning of August 29, it had grown to a mammoth 27 tracks. A handful—“Junya” and “Tell the Vision,” for example—detract from the project’s narrative arc, and another four are simply alternate versions of preexisting songs featuring slightly different verses.
This excess, paradoxically, is yet another manifestation of West’s newfound humility. His best albums—My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus—maintained their laserlike focus in large part because they didn’t stray far from Kanye’s vision, and Kanye’s vision alone. With Donda, the rapper opened the creative process up to A/B testing, allowing feedback from fans—at the listening parties and online—to shape the LP as it was being finalized. Because some devotees preferred the version of “Jail” with Jay-Z on it and others liked Dababy’s verse better, for example, both made the album. “I give up on doin’ things my way,” Kanye concedes on “Lord I Need You.”
In a vacuum, of course, it’s rather absurd to argue West’s last two months were anything short of one big narcissistic spectacle. The man sold more than 100,000 tickets to three different events where he walked around in designer clothes, played unfinished versions of his music over a loudspeaker, and auctioned off $200 T-shirts touting his 2024 presidential ambitions. He built a life-sized replica of his childhood home inside a football stadium, and, for about 24 hours in early August, livestreamed his every move—which included sleeping and lifting weights—to anyone in the world with an Apple Music account. A few weeks ago, he broke his self-imposed social media silence to reignite a years-long feud with fellow rapper, Drake.
In reality, Kanye is likely too far down the path of celebrity to ever truly embrace modesty—he’s built himself an ego-driven prison over the years from which it’s difficult to escape. But with Donda, he’s at least trying, and it’s heartbreaking.
“Ever wish you had another life?” he asks on the album’s second-to-last track. “I’ve been feelin’ low for so long. I ain’t had a high in so long. I been in the dark for so long. Night is always darkest ‘fore the dawn. Gotta make my mark ‘fore I’m gone. I don’t wanna die alone. I don’t wanna die alone.”
As those lyrics—from a song called “Come to Life”—played at the final listening party in Chicago a few weeks ago, Kanye lit himself on fire, metaphorically “killing his ego” and allowing himself an opportunity to be reborn through the ashes. “Come and purify me, come and sanctify me,” the song continued. “This is not about me. God is still alive, so I’m free. … So when I’m free, I’m free.”