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Album review: Kanye West’s ‘Donda’ pays touching, though chaotic tribute to his late mother

(Courtesy of Def Jam)

“Donda”

Kanye West

Def Jam Recordings

Aug. 29

By EJ Panaligan

Aug. 30, 2021 4:39 p.m.

Never one to shy away from his Christian faith, Kanye West dropped his latest album on a Sunday.

The 27-track, nearly two-hour album dedicated to his late mother comes after a hectic year-plus rollout, and “Donda” is quite clearly the furthest from a concise effort for the virtuoso producer and wordsmith. But amid the chaotic laundry list of featured artists and the constant changes in sonic direction throughout a loose Christian gospel theme, the most lucrative qualities of “Donda” shine brightest.

Whereas “JESUS IS KING” sacrificed West’s musical integrity in favor of a lukewarm attempt to take listeners to church, “Donda” incorporates those themes of Christianity in an innovative manner that doesn’t shy away from the melancholy, experimental edge that has punctuated past critically acclaimed works such as “Yeezus.” The sheer variety in production throughout the 108-minute musical journey provides a taste of flavors across many subgenres of hip-hop, from thrilling New York-style drill to an outlandish version of gospel-influenced trap, consistently introducing listeners to new tones through its duration.

[Related: Album review: Kanye West is the worst part of sonically incohesive ‘JESUS IS KING’]

The explosive feeling of freedom expressed in second track “Jail” highlights the strongest attributes of West’s artistry. Grandiose electric guitars and thumping, anthemic production go hand in hand with his arrogant lyrics about God posting his bail after a wild night out. Longtime collaborator and one half of “The Throne” duo, JAY-Z’s guest appearance complements the track’s evocation of a twisted euphoria as the pair toe the line between the lingering excitement and danger of running into police trouble.

And it’s in the record’s expansive, star-studded feature list where one can transparently see the immense lengths West’s artistry has reached over his nearly two-decade-long musical career. Alongside JAY-Z are appearances from industry veterans including Jay Electronica, Kid Cudi, Travis Scott, Young Thug, The Weeknd and others. But West also embraces a newer generation of hip-hop artists with verses from newcomers such as Playboi Carti, Baby Keem, Lil Baby and Roddy Ricch, serving as a testament to West’s enduring malleability as an artist.

In true artistic fashion for West, he never stays committed to a singular, consistent sound throughout these songs, mostly adapting to the distinctive styles of his featured artists and displaying the sheer flexibility of his artistry by incorporating them all under one record. On standout track “Off The Grid” with Playboi Carti and Fivio Foreign, the latter’s career-defining verse is upstaged by West’s own performance, which keeps up with the song’s fast, dirty and bass-heavy drill beat – a sound that Foreign helped popularize.

But it’s also in the record’s rare solo performances, such as the track “Come to Life,” where West is completely capable of holding his own. His emotionally charged vocals outline deep insecurities as well as fears of dying alone, and they clash chaotically with tingling, uplifting piano keys as he ultimately puts his trust in the man above to push him through.

[Related: Second Take: Kanye cannot back away from his political havoc with one tweet]

West’s flirtations with politics in recent years showed signs he was more interested in the circus show of celebrity culture than devoted to creating worthwhile art, but the conceptualization and effort put into “Donda” proves his heart still bleeds red for putting out innovative and controversial records. The evolution and world building of his previous record’s Christianity themes don’t at all hinder West’s memorable brand of brash confidence this time around. It comes through in all facets of the record, including his vocal performances, the Rolodex of compelling gospel-influenced beats and its overall execution.

It would have been impossible to expect a consistent theme of tribute to his late mother throughout 27 tracks. The lasting impact of her spirit comes through in places such as the title track, which samples a 2007 keynote speech she delivered at Chicago State University and in the lyrically reflective and somber “Jesus Lord.” But despite the record’s inconsistency in overall theme and extraordinarily long runtime, it is West’s curative altruism – allowing so many different voices and styles to embrace “Donda” – that might be the purest tribute of all to his late mother.

And it proves to listeners that West’s artistry is as ambitious as ever.

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EJ Panaligan | Senior staff
Panaligan is a senior staffer for the Arts and Entertainment and Opinion sections. He was previously the Opinion editor in 2020-21, and created the "Columns From Quarantine" Opinion column series. For the Arts and Entertainment section, he regularly contributes features, columns, reviews and Q&As to the Music | Fine Arts beat. He also co-created the "Life and Hip-Hop" Arts column series. He is from Carson, California but unabashedly dreams of a professional life in New York City.
Panaligan is a senior staffer for the Arts and Entertainment and Opinion sections. He was previously the Opinion editor in 2020-21, and created the "Columns From Quarantine" Opinion column series. For the Arts and Entertainment section, he regularly contributes features, columns, reviews and Q&As to the Music | Fine Arts beat. He also co-created the "Life and Hip-Hop" Arts column series. He is from Carson, California but unabashedly dreams of a professional life in New York City.
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