Kanye was on the precipice of a comeback. Like most billionaires, he didn’t need one. For someone to rise from the ashes, something needs to burn, and while the public’s respect for him over the past five years was highly combustible, West’s career (and bank account) were flame-retardant.
Then this summer—whether intentionally or through happenstance—Kanye had become more likable than he’d been in five years. This happened by the Chicago artist simply doing less, one of the most antithetical moves of his entire career. The disappearance of the MAGA hats, the Kardashian clan, and the traveling church group gave West’s most ardent detractors few threads to grasp, but Kanye’s uncharacteristic silence proved to be the most useful rebrand of all. Like a roving phantom, he popped up at NBA Finals games, private listening parties, and football stadiums, refusing to say a word. In late July, standing in the middle of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a stocking cap over his head, Kanye was about to do something he hadn’t accomplished since 2004: He was going to let the music—no matter how undercooked—speak for itself.
But being a Kanye fan is akin to being a frog carrying a scorpion across the deepest body of water. If the venom doesn’t get you, the cool black liquid filling your lungs will.
When news broke last week that West was moving his stadium high jinks to Chicago on Thursday night for his third listening event for his (allegedly) forthcoming album Donda, the whole enterprise started to feel like an elaborate piece of performance art or a giant money-laundering scheme. Considering West reportedly made $7 million in merch sales off the first show—and with his streams skyrocketing even in the absence of new music—it wouldn’t be surprising if it were the latter. In the past 39 days, instead of receiving Kanye’s 10th studio album, we’ve been subjected to hearing one unfinished project and a more polished (if slightly overproduced) follow-up, a livestream of Kanye reenacting scenes from the 2005 hit show Prison Break, master publicist Justin Laboy #respectfully stoking the chaos by announcing Watch the Throne 2, and the reignition of a Drake-West–Pusha T beef that’s as wanted as the next COVID variant. If reports are to be believed Kanye is also building a replica of his childhood home within Soldier Field, while legally changing his name to “Ye.”
Kanye stunts have now become the main attraction in a circus of his own making. As his voice grows louder, the appeal of Donda dwindles. If the past few Kanye album cycles have taught us anything, it’s that the music can no longer stand on its own. It remains to be seen whether Donda—which may arrive as soon as midnight ET on Friday, though history shows that’s far from a sure thing—has any hope of justifying the month-long odyssey of West focus-testing it into oblivion.
Since 2016’s The Life of Pablo, Kanye rollouts have calcified into a golem of excess, cross-brand synergy, and endless tinkering. Each pre-album extravaganza is merely one part of a growing portfolio meant to keep his celebrity pyre burning. When West unveiled his Yeezy Season 3 collection at Madison Square Garden that February, he shrewdly used his seventh studio album as leverage to market clothing that, outside of the sneakers, his average fan neither wanted nor could afford. It took four more days to get the album—a time frame that felt interminable then but seems laughably quaint in retrospect. But what’s often forgotten about TLOP is that it was the first record that Kanye could update in real time, thanks to it debuting in a world that favored streaming over physical albums. Mixes changed after the album dropped on Valentine’s Day, one song was added four months later, and features were erased and then tacked on again. When West infamously tweeted “Ima fix wolves” after performing one version of the song on Saturday Night Live and then putting another on the album, it unintentionally became prophetic for the next phase of the Chicago artist’s career. We’ve been perpetually stuck in the “Ima fix wolves” moment ever since, and with the announcement that Kanye is launching a product called the “Donda Stem Player” that allows fans to “customize any song,” it’s not looking like we’ll be exiting this era any time soon.
Every Kanye album now follows a similar pattern (assuming they come out at all). He haphazardly premieres an unfinished product at a random location: a ranch, an open field, a Coachella hill, or a concert hall. Often the new albums advertise unrelated ventures—documentaries, operas, church services, new Kanye merchandise—that are either rushed productions themselves or will never see the light of day. From there, West or someone from his camp announces a release date and then reneges after complaints about the half-baked album surface from critics and fans. Then, in a show of good faith, Kanye calls in favors that usually culminate in some splashy reunion of a beloved rap duo (Kanye and Cudi on Kids See Ghosts, Clipse on Jesus Is King, Kanye and Jay-Z on Donda). And last there’s the waiting period: Sometimes it’s a matter of days, like with Pablo. Others, it’s weeks, like with Jesus Is King. (Depending on when it comes out, the wait for Donda could eclipse the ones that came before it.) When the albums do arrive, they’re rarely better for the theatrics, which makes the case of Kanye’s Donda all the more dispiriting.
Based on the version of Donda he played at the second listening event, the album sounds like it could be Kanye’s most coherent in years. West smartly took two weeks to pivot after the first premiere, which featured songs full of scratch vocals, nonsensical lyrics, and a disturbing lack of drums, and was met with a less-than-stellar response. He returned with something that at least seemed finished, as Kanye drew on his extensive Rolodex to add the Weeknd, Jay Electronica, and a post-Verzuz Lox to the initial version. With those artists—plus Young Thug, Travis Scott, Playboi Carti, Pop Smoke, Roddy Ricch, and a transcendent Fivio Foreign verse—he crafted a project that could infiltrate as many nooks and crannies of the streaming landscape as possible. And whoever finished Kanye’s raps for him (Cyhi the Prynce? Consequence? Malik Yusef?) deserves an Edible Arrangement. The beats on the updated album alone sounded good enough to make sure people forgot—or were at least willing to ignore—Kanye’s cringeworthy anti-abortion bars, visits to Donald Trump’s White House, and supposed cancellations that obviously didn’t stick.
If Kanye released Donda v.2 the moment after he—or at least a stunt double—ascended to the rafters of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, we’d be having a different conversation. It’d be another redemption story in a career that was built atop similar mythmaking moments, like Graduation outselling 50 Cent’s Curtis in its first week, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s universal acclaim after the VMA debacle, or The College Dropout’s rise from Roc-A-Fella afterthought to undeniable classic. But he didn’t drop Donda then, and no official updates came, leaving millions of fans to parse iTunes updates and cyber-bully Mike Dean on Twitter. Weeks later, they’re still waiting for an album that may never come—and if it does will likely be weighed down by all of the dramatics it took to get to this moment.
Even when Kanye isn’t saying much—publicly at least—he’s still the noisiest entity within culture. Donda isn’t the first time Kanye’s tried to build an airplane mid-flight while cutting the strings on every parachute available. Part of being a fan of the man is watching him land plane after plane for years no matter the circumstances. For 17 years, that’s been my relationship to Kanye. There’s something electric about watching a Black man be as uncompromising and egotistical as any white man and manage to succeed despite it. There’s also something dazzling about watching Kanye’s crashes and learning year after year that having idols, especially ones of the celebrity persuasion, is like walking a long road off a steep cliff.
It’s at times like these I often think about traveling back to 2004. My time machine would take me to the CD section of Borders, where a wide-eyed, naive, but well-meaning child was looking at a collection of plastic discs he couldn’t afford. I’d calmly walk up to this kid, slap The College Dropout out of his hands, and mutter, “It’s not worth it.” Hopefully, those words coupled with the endless void lurking within my dead eyes would be enough to convince my past self to pick up anything else in the soon-to-be-defunct bookstore chain. Existence is a miserable enough burden. No one needs to add a life of Kanye fandom to the proceedings … unless Donda is a classic. Then never mind.