After hosting three public listening parties over the past six weeks, stalking Mercedes-Benz Stadium like a high-fashion Phantom of the Opera, reigniting his beef with Drake, and bringing DaBaby and Marilyn Manson out on stage, Kanye West has finally released his 10th studio album, Donda. It’s a long project—27 tracks and an hour and 48 minutes—and there’s a lot to dissect. Here, our staff shares our instant reactions to the album, including what works, what doesn’t, and whether the spectacle of this summer was worth it.
1. What is your tweet-length review of Donda?
Justin Charity: There’s a rotting overabundance of tweet-like commentary about this album. I’ll spare you.
Charles Holmes: “
Devil Kanye my opp. —Travis Scott” —Charles Holmes
Aric Jenkins: No one man should have all that power (to release a two-hour-long album).
Matt James: I am completely exhausted by both Kanye and the Donda rollout. Is it even possible to assess the music separate from all the noise surrounding it? This is what I’ve got: Hopping between various Kanye sounds of the past decade, Ye fails to evolve or self-edit, but the songs are mostly good.
Justin Sayles: It’s long, overproduced, and way too Jesus-y, but it’s his best since at least The Life of Pablo, which says more about the state of Kanye than the quality of Donda.
Dan Comer: Donda is Kanye’s most listenable album since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and it’s not particularly close.
Andrew Gruttadaro: Everything Kanye West has done over the past few years has felt like a series of fealty tests—just a man antagonizing people to see whether they’ll stick around. Dropping a mediocre two-hour album on a Sunday definitely fits that trend.
Katie Baker: “... and that’s why I’m starting this SubStack.”
2. What’s your favorite song off Donda?
Baker: “Off the Grid.” Though I’ll always love hearing from Lauryn Hill in any way, shape, or form and so “Believe What I Say” is up there too.
Sayles: Kanye doing drill music could’ve come off as unbelievably corny, but “Off the Grid” has the best beat and the best rapping on Donda. When Justin LaBoy tweeted that Kanye sounded hungry again, this must’ve been what he was talking about.
Gruttadaro: Give me “Believe What I Say,” so I can pretend it’s 2008 for four minutes and two seconds.
Jenkins: Early days, but so far the only song to pass the “on repeat” test is “Keep My Spirit Alive.”
James: I was really impressed with “Jonah.” Vory and Lil Durk both have vulnerable, moving verses about living life after losing someone. Kanye’s verse is short, disciplined, and rhythmically interesting. Vory’s chorus is one of the most memorable moments on the album. The samples in the background of the song play in reverse as they all reflect on the past. The Auto-Tuned chorus vocals distort like memories and old cassette tapes.
Comer: “Lord I Need You.” The drop at “your gun off safety” is my favorite part of the album, and the cheesy Taco Bell–KFC line notwithstanding, this track is Ye at his sentimental best. It feels like a long-lost cousin of “Family Business,” albeit with more Kardashian influence and less oversized-polo energy.
Holmes: I’m still emotionally recuperating from Kanye taking Kid Cudi off “Remote Control” and replacing him with the globglogabgalab meme. So I guess I’ll go with the low-quality rip of “Remote Control” v.2 that’s safe and sound in my heart.
3. Least favorite?
Comer: “Donda Chant.” (DondaDondaDonda.)
Baker: Donda. Donda. Donda. DONda. DONda. Donda. donda. DONDA. DONDA!!!!!!
James: “Ok Ok” is pretty boring. The beat is inert, Kanye’s verse is a dud, and Lil Yachty’s meandering verse does nothing for me. The “pt 2” version of this song was a bit better, since Shenseea can make magic over any backdrop.
Holmes: The Pop Smoke song is a fallout bunker. It’s a piece of Teflon in a world full of kitchen utensils made of mochi. It’s the MCU looking at a sea of independent films hoping to play in movie theaters that are no longer there. In other words, “Tell the Vision” is indestructible and I’m still not over it.
Sayles: If Kanye was insistent on putting the Pop Smoke song on there, he could’ve at least gotten the a capella from the original song instead of going the DIY route.
Jenkins: I mean no disrespect to the late Pop Smoke—it’s really the production that lets him down here—but I never wanna hear this song again. Even with a maximalist approach on a 27-song album, I’m not sure how this made the cut.
Gruttadaro: I am not the audience for “Jesus Lord.” I don’t know who the audience is for an aimless eight-minute religious hip-hop jam, but I do know that I am not it.
4. Was Donda worth all the antics of the rollout?
Holmes: Is a root canal worth it? Sometimes to get what you need, you have to wade through the pain you never wanted.
Jenkins: Of course it wasn’t. Look, Kanye’s music defined my adolescence and I’ve defended him for longer than most, but nothing can justify such levels of self-indulgence. On top of that, did Kanye even use the stadium events in a productive manner? It’d be one thing if he sound-tested a larger catalog in order to cut down to something sharp and cohesive. Instead we’re left with a sprawling mishmash.
James: It was all way too much. By the third listening event, not even the people standing on that replica porch were excited to listen to “God Breathed” for a third time. If Donda were alive she’d probably tell Marilyn Manson to get the fuck off her porch.
Sayles: It’s all fun and games when he’s doing biceps curls in a bulletproof vest and dressing like Hellraiser, but then he’s gotta bring out DaBaby and Marilyn Manson. All I can say for certain is I’m exhausted.
Comer: The “antics” conversation is a bit overstated. Kanye’s been an obsessive album-tinkerer since his College Dropout days, but the CD deadline culture of the mid-aughts didn’t allow fans an inside look at (or involvement in) his process. Sure, the listening parties were ostentatious and the streaming delays frustrating, but he ultimately delivered an unforgettable, interactive experience. My only major gripe is his sharing the album rollout’s biggest stage with DaBaby and Marilyn Manson, but I suppose it isn’t a Kanye event without a moment that disappoints damn near everyone watching.
Charity: I like Donda a bit better than The Life of Pablo, but I think the stunt marketing for The Life of Pablo at least suited the music on The Life of Pablo, for better or for worse. This time around, did we really need a Joker-fied stadium encampment, kink gear, and a random release date generator to promote a rather low-key album full of Z-sides?
Gruttadaro: The man put MARILYN MANSON on a pedestal. Culture has seemingly dropped the anti-Kanye bent (because culture in 2021 can’t stick to any one thing for longer than 30 seconds) and decided to forgive him despite any signs of genuine remorse, but Kanye is irredeemable. Or at the very least not worth the effort.
Baker: Look, I don’t want anyone to be saddled with unnecessary stress during these difficult times, but on the other hand, the torture Kanye put The Ringer’s dear sweet music editor Justin Sayles through was, to me, a delight.
5. Who had the best feature on Donda? Who had the worst?
James: Most of the best parts of Donda are features: Fivio Foreign eats everyone’s lunch on “Off the Grid;” Vory and Shenseea make every track they appear on better; Roddy Ricch lives up to his hype on “Pure Souls;” KayCyy and Westside Gunn are a smart pairing on “Keep My Spirit Alive;” Jay Electronica and the Lox make that 11 minutes and 30 seconds of “Jesus Lord pt 2” feel like a breezy five. Only Yachty’s verse on “Ok Ok” comes across as a complete miss.
Jenkins: The task of identifying which feature I dislike the most is a difficult one. As for which I enjoyed the most? Westside Gunn on “Keep My Spirit Alive” is clean (“Thank Godddddd”).
Baker: Loved both Playboi Carti and Fivio Foreign’s appearances on “Off the Grid,” one of my favorite songs of the album; also a big fan of Jay Electronica’s verse on “Jesus Lord,” which name-checks the Clintons, Ertugrul, the pyramids, and boxing. But I could probably have done without DaBaby trying to guilt-trip his detractors, “as a father of daughters”-style.
Comer: Anytime Kid Cudi delivers a classic Cudi Croon, he’s going to get my nod for best feature. The worst verse came from Jay-Z, and I think Kanye knew it. You can’t convince me “Jail pt 2” with DaBaby wasn’t actually meant to replace Hov’s version.
Sayles: Fivio Foreign’s “Off the Grid” verse should make him a star. Meanwhile, Yachty’s verse on “Ok Ok” should be enough to blow the goodwill he built up with Michigan Boat Boy. It also makes you wonder how bad that Soulja Boy verse was.
Holmes: Vory going from relative unknown to floating on three tracks has to count for best feature. The Weeknd isn’t technically the worst feature, but his placement on “Hurricane” feels like Billboard Hot 100 bait, which is … fine.
6. How would you rate Kanye’s rapping on Donda?
Holmes: Sometimes it’s more important when a troubled student bothers to hand in something instead of forgoing the assignment at all, which sums up the rapping on most late-career Kanye projects (e.g. Ye, Jesus Is King, Kids See Ghosts). Kanye bothering to lyrically show up on Donda makes it the best thing he’s done in ages by far, even if the political contents of the raps are as despicable as ever.
Gruttadaro: Well, it does seem like he can still do it when he tries ([whispers] or has help?), which is pretty surprising having listened to Ye.
Baker: Some of it reminded me of the good old days, and then sometimes I was totally taken out of the whole listening experience thanks to some cringe shoehorned-in reference to Giannis or Bezos. (Which, actually, I guess that kind of reminded me a little of the good old days too?)
Comer: It’s refreshing. I’m never expecting Kanye to deliver top-tier bars, but his pacing and tone throughout this album was strong, with standout performances on “Off the Grid” and “Heaven and Hell.” He sounded more like a rapper’s rapper than he has in quite some time, after his past two solo album releases made me question if that Kanye was still in there.
James: This question is all about expectations. For reference, I physically wince whenever I listen to a new Kanye verse, so it was about what I expected. He had a few moments when he actually held his own and a few moments when he fell on his face.
Charity: I don’t really care to litigate Kanye’s rapping in the physical sense. He’s jittery and breathless, he can’t sing for shit, and that’s his style at this point, you enjoy it or you don’t. But the songwriting is just so all over the place. Kanye used to have a knack for saying just the right thing at just the right measure on just the right song. His little Kanye-isms about being an asshole, being a genius, being a celebrity, and being a connoisseur—they were all rooted in a tight coordination of musical and comedic timing. But now Kanye will make some cutting comment about his divorce and you’ll forget which song you even heard the line on, because all the songs have some other version of the insight, and now all the insights have blended together, unedited and redundant. On these past few albums, Kanye West is just vomiting the TMZ homepage at you.
Sayles: For all the credit he’ll get for his entirely competent “Off the Grid” verse, let’s not let him get away with rapping “Free throat coat for the throat GOATs.” Sad.
7. If you’ve been following the evolution of this album at the listening events, is this the best possible version of the album? Which changes do you like? Which do you disagree with?
James: I watched all three streaming events and the only thing I really remember is that he played a lot more of the globglogabgalab sample at the last event. So, it was a great decision to cut that down to a minimum at the end of “Remote Control”—we didn’t need another “poopity scoop” situation on our hands. I also definitely don’t need two versions of four of the songs on the album. The tracks labeled “pt 2” are not actually continuations of earlier tracks. They’re just alternate versions that add almost 23 minutes to the running time of the album. Kanye must be remembering the blowback he got during the rollout for The Life of Pablo. He needs to pick the best version and deal with the haters—or maybe stop playing everyone in the world different versions of unfinished music.
Sayles: He made a lot of cosmetic changes from Version 2, the one he premiered in early August. Some were fairly innocuous, like the sample he added to “Heaven and Hell” or the extended outro on “Pure Souls.” Others practically ruined the song: You can’t convince me removing Cudi from “Remote Control” was the right call. We’d be having a different discussion if he would’ve stopped three weeks ago.
Holmes: Donda Version 2 is the one that got away. She’s the high school sweetheart you should’ve cherished more. She’s the partner you took for granted that’s found a far happier home than you could ever provide. Now all you’re stuck with is a DaBaby feature and a Cudi-less “Remote Control.”
Comer: I didn’t like that Kanye included multiple versions of four different songs, a decision seemingly influenced by negative fan reaction to some of the newer cuts at the final listening party. Letting fans impact the album’s tracklist is a dubious approach with a slippery slope, and I wish he would’ve trimmed the extra fat so the final product was more succinct. But, Mr. West, if you’re reading this and are still in a conciliatory mood, how about releasing Chance the Rapper’s version of “Waves”?
8. If you’re coming into this album cold, does the end result sound like it was worth all the public A/B testing?
Gruttadaro: As an editor, I disagree with the construction of this album—the length, the lack of restraint, the constant tinkering post-deadline—on a near-fundamental level.
Baker: Here’s some exclusive footage of Kanye doing A/B testing for this extremely “I ain’t reading all that, I’m happy for u tho, or sorry that happened” album:
Holmes: In a world where Kanye wasting my time wasn’t part of the job description, I think I’d be far kinder to Donda. To those that didn’t spend three Thursday nights watching a man jerry-rig an album out of scotch tape and paper clips, I’m sure Kanye’s 10th studio album sounds like a classic.
9. How does Donda compare to the rest of Ye’s post-Pablo output?
Baker: I listened to the whole thing!
Holmes: Considering the album is longer than seven songs, has comprehensible Kanye raps, and multiple features from rappers below the age of 30, it’s easily the best of latter-Kanye records.
Comer: I said it in my tweet-length review and I stand by it: This is Kanye’s most complete, most listenable, most likable, and most quotable album in more than a decade.
Charity: The best bits of Donda pick up musical (and spiritual) threads from Yeezus and fit them nicely with the spiritual (and musical) threads on Jesus Is King. Yeezus is still a much better album in its own right, but as for the post-Pablo work, Donda mutes the best and worst impulses of those later albums. The meanest thing I could say about Donda, I think, is that it’s easy listening. But that’s also kinda what I like about it compared to the hours upon hours of Halloween music that Kanye had been subjecting us to.
James: It’s his best, most polished release since Pablo. Unfortunately, Kanye has gotten worse at self-editing since 2016 and Donda is somehow even more bloated than Pablo. There are so many different kinds of Kanye songs on Donda that it can’t possibly feel like a cohesive album.
Gruttadaro: There are songs on here that I want to like, and if this album had come out in 2016 rather than 2021, I bet I would’ve listened to it religiously. It’s far better than Ye and Jesus Is King. But it also comes with so much more baggage.
Jenkins: Overall, this album fits into the general pattern of releases established post-Pablo: moments of magic bogged down by mediocre production, lazy lyrics, and PR fiascos. But we should acknowledge as consumers that Kanye is a real person who’s undergone a tumultuous past few years. It’s a positive that he’s still active and creative despite it all, and perhaps he’ll come out of this experience as a more realized artist.
Sayles: The greatest sin of Jesus Is King and Ye was that they were boring. At least no one can accuse Donda of being that.
10. Why do you think we continue to pay Kanye West the attention that we do, and what would it take to change that?
Gruttadaro: Deep down I think Kanye West is trying to answer these questions too.
James: Kanye casts many lines. If you’re a fan of the music, he’s got an album for you. If you’re just following the Kanye story line, he’s got tabloid drama, fire, aerial stunts, masks, and a practiced lack of punctuality. If you’re a hypebeast, he’s got $200 shirts. If you hate Kanye, he’ll happily feed that hatred by sharing the spotlight with Marilyn Manson and DaBaby. He needs as much attention as possible, and his ability to get that attention has eclipsed his musical prowess.
Baker: Shamelessness is a superpower in our society, and that will never change.
Charity: Ten thousand years from now, when the aliens review the wreckage of the United States, they aren’t going to identify democracy as our profound contribution to humanity’s long adventure on this planet. They’re just going to find a lot of mass media. It’s our only idea about anything: entertainment, yes, but also politics, psychology, religion. Mass media is what we do. Celebrity is what we do. Celebrity is what Kanye West does. He beat the game on easy mode, really.
Comer: Kanye is the living embodiment of the phrase “people aren’t just one thing.” He’s the devil on the shoulder who encourages saying whatever you want “just to see how it feels” in one moment, but the Super Christian making gospel music and refusing to curse in the name of Jesus in the next. He’s the man who proclaimed live on national TV that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” only to become a Donald Trump supporter and his eventual political opponent. Kanye married and is now perhaps getting divorced from the most famous person on the planet. He’s so Chicago and so Atlanta and so Hollywood at the same time. He sucks, but he’s also awesome. Kanye is simply too interesting to ignore, and that’s how it’ll always be.
Sayles: At this point, he’s a fraction as popular as Drake, but he commands far more attention, and should for a long time. But it’s better that way: If Drake had tried the listening party gambit, it would’ve been well-produced and entirely anodyne. And where’s the fun in that?
Holmes: The Kanye spectacle will pump dopamine to the little nooks in our reptilian brains forever. This is the prison we’ve built for ourselves. Watching a billionaire spend vast amounts of money building absurd monuments to a musical legacy that’s already solidified rarely gets boring. It doesn’t hurt that 50 percent of the time the music succeeds despite the bullshit.