When fans heard Kanye West’s latest album “Donda” would have religious themes, the excitement was muted, especially having come fresh off a lackluster effort in “Jesus is King.” However, the album was devoted to his late mother, who had a tremendous effect on West throughout his career. What impact would this have sonically, content-wise and atmospherically? As it turns out, with “Donda,” Kanye returns to his true form, mixing the elements of his old self that enamored us from the beginning with innovative styles and techniques.
Kanye’s first album, “The College Dropout” released in 2004, but he produced beats long before. He has witnessed the hip-hop genre evolve and change in countless ways, connecting him to the game on a deep level. While I would commend Kanye for his timelessness, even someone as influential as him has to adapt to changing sounds. Past albums such as “Yeezus” and “The Life of Pablo” are great examples of Kanye transitioning his sound from an old-school, soul feel to a more trap-heavy style that has typified recent trends in rap. “Donda” not only continues this trend, but builds on it in new and fascinating ways. On “Off the Grid,” Kanye fuses his gospel style with trap and drill beats, both of which are new-wave sounds. Playboi Carti and Fivio Foreign, two artists of the new wave rap, offer bars, embodying a style very different from Kanye’s. Yet, he was able to bring them together under his wing, and in the process created possibly one of the best songs of the year, with each artist delivering an incredible verse.
“Heaven and Hell” is another stand-out track in which Kanye expertly combines his choir-based sound with a more modern trap beat. The choir coming to full voice during the chorus never fails to give me chills. While Kanye does include tracks with his vintage touch, such as “New Again,” whose jubilant electronic sound could have fit perfectly on “Graduation,” the most powerful tracks are those embracing Kanye’s new style. “Lord I Need You” features a haunting, somber gospel backing sample, over which Kanye mourns the deterioration of a relationship, needing God to help him through the struggle. “I give up on doin’ things my way/ And tell me everything’s gonna be alright.”
Collaboration with so many younger, fresher faces distinguishes “Donda” from the rest of West’s excellent catalogue. It seems he made a concerted effort to work with many up-and-comers, making sure to give these stars all they need to shine—and every single one of them delivered. Roddy Ricch’s hook on “Pure Souls” is expressive and smooth. Baby Keem is commanding in “Praise God.” Playboi Carti adds his unmatched energy to both “Off the Grid” and “Junya.” Giving the space for these artists to provide such great features not only enhances “Donda” but also helps catapult their careers to new heights. We saw this phenomenon with Chance the Rapper’s meteoric rise in 2016, when he won rap album of the year following a universally-hailed guest verse on “Life of Pablo.” Kanye’s willingness and desire to work with new faces demonstrates his abilities to recognize true talent and collaborate.
Above all, Kanye retains the element of his music that is most crucial—the sheer quality and depth to each track. Compared to so many other projects, such as recent “Certified Lover Boy” by Drake, Kanye’s tracks have a richness in sound that stands alone. Even in an album with a whopping 27 tracks, he is not one for filler or half-hearted efforts. With a Kanye album, you know that he put his heart and soul into each song. This can be seen through each track’s intricate layering; meshing of samples; collaboration; and variety of styles, beats and lyrical content. Songs such as “Moon” or “No Child Left Behind” may seem slower, but bring an ethereal atmosphere to the album. Songs such as “God Breathed” or “Jesus is Lord” may seem long and drawn-out, but they allow Kanye to express his complicated relationship with faith, a running motif throughout the album.
This leads to the possible criticism that some may have for the album: its emphasis on religious themes. While it can come off as lofty and preachy, “Donda” is more relatable than “Jesus is King.” Admittedly, the album does discuss religion, and some tracks are meant to praise God. However, many songs, such as “Lord I Need You” or “Ok Ok,” actually deal with Kanye’s struggle with himself, his mental health and his religion. A complicated relationship with faith is far more relatable. So while I also wish that Kanye talked more about Gold Diggers, Devils in New Dresses and didn’t exclude curse words, this album still retains enough of his genius to make it enjoyable.
“Donda” is Kanye being Kanye. Free-thinking, style-adapting, innovating Kanye. To be able to hold a listener’s full attention for 27 tracks must mean the album is something truly unique. Most rappers have songs that can make you bop your head, tap your foot or even break out into dance, but few can say that they truly take your breath away.
Album Rating: 8.7 / 10
Best Songs: Heaven and Hell, Jail, Off the Grid, Lord I Need You
Best Feature: Fivio Foreign (Off the Grid)