The first two acts of jeen-yuhs, the excellent decades-in-the-making Netflix documentary about Kanye West’s rise to fame, revolve mostly around one big question: Why won’t anyone take him seriously as a rapper? The film paints a picture of a young superproducer desperate to break out as a solo artist, bursting into rooms to play demos for unamused executives and rapping songs like “Two Words” for the camera with crystal clarity, as if he’ll never get another chance to. The footage of an unsigned Kanye is powerful—he’s not the world’s best rapper, but he believes himself to be, or at least understands that to get to where he wants to, he needs to rap as if he belongs atop the mountain.
What do we make, then, of a half-baked song like “Happy,” one of the 16 tracks from his new album, Donda 2, that have been released in the past week via the $200 Ye-branded Donda Stem Player? After an opening verse from the album’s executive producer, Future, Kanye drops three straight, each more unintelligible than the last. (A small sample: “When the gun of sun, when I’m in it / Tinted, squint it, been it, y’all know it been a minute.”) They’re clearly—hopefully—reference tracks, vocals meant for Kanye to work out his flow before going back and adding something of substance. But in their current form, they’re giving Genius editors fits. To call “Happy” unfinished is generous—it’s barely started. It’s the type of rough draft the onetime perfectionist would’ve previously never let escape his hard drive. But two decades on from The College Dropout and the early events of jeen-yuhs, this is the current state of Kanye West, in which albums are living documents whose real-time creation has been packaged and commodified alongside the music itself.
This reality—where the very idea of a Kanye album is an amorphous concept—is one we’ve been hurtling toward for nearly a decade now, since he narrowly hit the deadline for 2013’s Yeezus and received universal praise for the project, like a student who gets an A+ after popping Adderall to pull an all-nighter. Since Yeezus, he’s fixed “Wolves” and tinkered endlessly with The Life of Pablo, snapped a photo for an album cover on the way to the listening party for said album, and started and stopped and restarted more projects than most artists drop in their entire careers, finding Jesus and skating past countless planned release dates in the process. He took this build-the-plane-as-you-fly-it ethos to its extreme last summer when he debuted the first Donda during three livestreamed stadium listening parties, which gave fans a peek into his creative process and allowed them to watch songs blossom from bare-bones sketches to full-blown compositions ahead of the album’s official release in August. (Sometimes it was hard to keep track of the changes amid the chaos: Kid Cudi was added to and removed from “Remote Control” as many times as he’s shuffled onto and off of Kanye’s Instagram Close Friends list.)
Of all the Kanye release antics of recent years, the Donda rollout feels most instructive for the current chaos surrounding its sequel. If Kanye learned nothing else in 2021, it’s that hordes of people are willing to buy tickets (and corresponding merch) or tune in just to get a glimpse of his artistry, even if that meant trying to parse scratch vocals and unfinished beats. With Donda 2, he’s taken that approach a step further. Similar to his previous album, he debuted a handful of tracks at a somewhat-disastrous live event, this one held last week in Miami. But rather than working on the songs until they’re ready for mass consumption, he’s doled them out through data dumps on the Stem Player, a disc-like device that lets users remix Ye’s latest songs and break them down to their individual components—and that will reportedly be the only place listeners can officially hear Donda 2 because of Kanye’s gripes with streamers like Spotify, The Ringer’s parent company. The first four Donda 2 songs arrived on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after the listening party, and the biggest update thus far came the next day via a patch titled “V.2.22.22 MIAMI,” a name that would seem to indicate we’re due for many more updates as days turn to weeks and those numbers creep up. (Let’s just hope the third number doesn’t rise and Kanye keeps the Donda 2 experience confined to 2022.)
The result is a constantly evolving symphony of a 21-time Grammy Award winner. Already, there seems to be an acknowledgement that parts of Donda 2 need more work: One day after the V.2.22.22 update, he pulled “Keep It Burning”—one of the tracks that actually made “Happy” sound comparatively finished—and then updated the drums on “True Love,” removing the 8-bit filter he used on the original to let them breathe on what he’s calling the “Stadium Version.” (The drum break on “True Love” is the same immediately recognizable one he used on “Runaway,” a detail that evokes memories of Kanye’s more refined work.) Beyond those small tweaks, other massive changes should be coming soon: The current track list (itself a living document) includes 34 songs, and just this past weekend, Kanye posted pictures of himself in the studio with indie darlings Beach House, whom he brought in presumably to work on this album. We don’t know what the final shape of Donda 2 will look like; it’s reasonable to assume that Kanye doesn’t either.
Watching him figure it out is potentially fascinating as an art experiment, but at the moment it’s an even better exercise in commerce. Even with the deluge of illegal Mega and Zippyshare links that follow each Donda 2 update, Kanye and Stem Player maker Kano Computing say they’ve moved a lot units, and even though the new project isn’t available on Spotify, the album’s accompanying publicity helped make Kanye the most-streamed artist on the platform on both Saturday and Sunday. It’s also great brand management: An artist who’s relentlessly pushed himself as a capital-A Auteur for nearly two decades gets to roll out half-finished songs about his divorce and hone them publicly, imagining himself as a modern-day Warhol inviting spectators to marvel at an unfinished violin painting. Where the music had often felt recently like a loss leader for Kanye’s more lucrative endeavors—remember, he became a billionaire off of Yeezys, not Yeezus—he’s now found a way to bottle his art and sell it back to diehards for $200 a pop. As Kano Computing CEO Alex Klein tweeted last week, “Anywhere else, you’re not getting the vision.”
You’ll notice that thus far, we haven’t discussed the result of that vision aside from the unfinished tracks. Perhaps that’s the point: As an album—to the extent it is an album at the moment—Donda 2 is uneven, never rising to the highs of his best work or quite falling to the lows of lesser projects like Ye. In many ways, it’s the divorce album the original Donda promised to be. Sometimes, that’s effective, like on “Get Lost” and “Too Easy,” which effectively tap into the wounded-soul AutoTune stylings that made 808s & Heartbreaks the most influential album of the 2010s. Other times, the toxicity of Kanye’s social media harassment of his estranged wife, Kim Kardashian, and her new boyfriend, Pete Davidson, spills onto the page. The album’s current leadoff track, “Security”—built around the refrain “I ain’t gettin’ frisked / I put your security at risk”—may not be the worst song Kanye’s ever made, but it’s certainly one of the grossest (and miles away from the “accountability” he pledged to take earlier this month). Even on Donda 2’s best moments, which tend to retreat from the real-life drama surrounding Kanye, the specter of his divorce looms—on the triumphant Migos and Baby Keem team-up “We Did It Kid,” Offset raps, “Helpin’ Ye find Kim / In the black double-M Benz.” This isn’t exactly Blood on the Tracks, but if you’re interested in hearing Kanye whine about how Kim dressed their daughter in Nike instead of Adidas, there’s enough for you to enjoy.
With untold changes and as many as 18 tracks still to come, assessing Donda 2 comprehensively is a fool’s errand. Will the sample of Kim’s SNL monologue on “Sci Fi” survive once the lawyers get wind of it? How about the song’s regrettable “semen / Morgan Freeman” bars? Will Jack Harlow’s forgettable feature on the Virgil Abloh tribute “Louie Bags” appear on the next iteration? These are unanswerable questions that Kanye is hoping you’ll become invested in. But for now, Donda 2 is something like Schrödinger’s zip file—it’s neither good nor bad until Kanye declares it finished. Plus, if you don’t like what you hear, you can always customize it with your Stem Player, provided you’re willing to shell out a day’s pay for the privilege.
We often think of albums as immaculate conceptions, arriving fully formed and ready to ingest, as opposed to the product of countless hours of labor. Even when legacy acts get expansive reissues with dozens of outtakes tacked on, the bonus tracks follow the canonical work, sitting there as curiosities for self-styled scholars to dissect—they’re meant to enhance the listening experience, not replace it. It’s that kind of documentation that makes the first two acts of Netflix’s jeen-yuhs a compelling watch, as it charts the evolution of The College Dropout from rough demo to genre-shifting classic. While watching the doc, we have the benefit of knowing what that project would become; seeing the sweat that Kanye poured into it only enhances our appreciation of it. Nearly 20 years after that album, Kanye is asking us to experience that process in reverse—he’s selling the sweat with no clear indication of what the end product will look like. It’s a leap of faith that many of his biggest fans are willing to take. The question now is whether Kanye can reward that devotion by finishing Donda 2, or whether he thinks access to his process is enough to justify the cost of admission. Until we get an answer, it’s hard to say just how seriously we should take him.