The other night I spent a solid half-hour transfixed by an Apple Music video feed of Kanye West’s childhood home. OK: a replica of Kanye West’s childhood home, originally located at 7815 S South Shore Drive in Chicago, now reconstructed 10 miles away at Soldier Field for his Donda listening party late Thursday, the third live-streamed preview of his long-threatened 10th album. OK: Transfixed is pushing it. I was also farting around elsewhere on the internet. I was tired. I was skeptical. And above all I was impatient: for the show to start already, for this record to come out already, for this record’s surreal and punishing rollout to be over already. Typical Kanye, in other words. Meet the new New Kanye, same as the old New Kanye.
What a striking, ominous, even lovely image, though: the weathered but proud house looming over a football field, a cross affixed to the roof, windows glowing, rock-concert smoke billowing, uneasy anticipation building, and 40,000 or so mostly unseen Kanye fans cautiously whooping in occasional fractured unison, as anxious crowds do when they, too, are impatient for the show to start. Silhouettes of a few of those fans roamed the stadium concourse in the distance, perhaps in search of the luxe merch that reportedly netted Kanye $7 million during the previous Donda listening party in early August, the second of two extra-surreal events at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (After the first Atlanta listening party in late July, Kanye set up camp in the stadium’s bowels to further refine his vision, pump a little iron, and dress as a rejected Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles villain.)
Am I stalling? I’m stalling! He started it! I remember watching a campfire burn in a field in Wyoming for like 20 minutes while waiting for the Ye album’s live-streamed premiere to start in 2018. I remember dropping like $20 on an opening-night ticket for the moody, 38-minute IMAX movie that heralded the arrival of 2019’s Jesus Is King. I remember the chaotic yearlong saga of 2016’s The Life of Pablo, a relentless and mostly charming fiasco that didn’t end even when the record came out. The hours, the days, the years, the lifetimes millions of fans and doubters and haters and agnostics alike have devoted to this man and his tumultuous promo schemes in the past five years alone. The mild excitement inseparable from the total exasperation. The ornery rollouts that turn out to be more memorable, for good or (more often) for ill, than the records themselves. (“Ima fix wolves” has long outlasted “Wolves” itself, and I love “Wolves.”) Another example: As you might’ve heard, once the Soldier Field show finally kicked off, the front door of that house opened, and DaBaby and fuckin’ Marilyn Manson walked out.
Donda, the album, finally dropped a few days later, on Sunday morning, a Maximum Kanye release date indeed. Musically, it fuses the scabrous industrial blare of Yeezus (still my favorite) with the ecstatic Gospel melancholia of Jesus Is King (don’t remember much about it now, though it sounded fantastic in the F9 Super Bowl trailer). A bewildering Pablo-style sprawl is also a given at this point: Donda is 27 tracks long and clocks in at an hour and 48 minutes, capped by four extra-superfluous “pt 2” remixes, including the one featuring both DaBaby and (barely) Manson, their last-second inclusion likely some sort of witless protest against cancel culture.
Ugh. Ugh ugh ugh. I don’t blame you if that stunt alone put you off the Donda discourse for good. Cosigning DaBaby—who apologized for slapping a female fan in 2020 and has spent the past month getting kicked off festival bills for making homophobic remarks onstage at Rolling Loud Miami in July, deleting an apology for the latter in early August—would be thorny enough. But Marilyn Manson is facing lawsuits from four different women who say he sexually assaulted them; 15 women, including Westworld actress Evan Rachel Wood, have publicly stated that he abused them. (Manson has vehemently denied all these charges; on Saturday night, Wood offered a musical rebuttal of her own.) Adding these guys to your album at the 11th hour is empty provocation. It’s bringing Marilyn Manson door to door trying to shock people. It’s musical clickbait. It sucks.
Argh, sorry, I got distracted again! There’s official music now! Nearly two hours of music! Most of which doesn’t involve those two guys! Anybody want to talk about the music? Donda is the best Kanye album since Pablo. It features the single worst verse on a Kanye album by anybody since Jay-Z on “Monster.” (Relax, it’s not him.) It features, for a few fleeting moments, the best singing Kanye himself has ever done. It is an often-bruising divorce album, an intermittently stirring devotional album, a feature-heavy bacchanal that mostly avoids random DJ Khaled–style listlessness, and a relentless torrent of Kanye-style lyrical groaners of both the Good Bad and the Bad Bad variety. (I’ll let you decide which category “Cussin’ at your baby mama / Guess that’s why they call it custody” falls into.)
Of course Donda is also, per the title, a tender and wounded tribute to Kanye’s mother, Donda West, whose death in 2007 has haunted her son’s increasingly combative and discursive music ever since. Nonetheless, there is no one moment on this record as captivating as that extended Soldier Field shot of his rebuilt childhood home, though mercifully there is also nothing quite as awful as the moment you recognized Manson standing on the porch. (I tapped out of that livestream long before Kanye literally set himself on fire.)
Whew. Maybe now you understand why I was stalling. Final verdict: total exhaustion. There’s too much happening, and it won’t stop happening. Donda is designed to be nigh-impossible to absorb in one sitting, or really to absorb at all; this record antagonizes just as often as it entices, sulks just as often as it swaggers, very nearly implodes just as often as it almost triumphs. Once I’m done writing about it I don’t want to listen to or even think about it for several weeks at least. (Drake’s Certified Lover Boy, allegedly out Friday, aims to make so much noise that everyone forgets Kanye altogether; try-hard Drake fans have already affixed pro-Drake propaganda to the front steps of Kanye’s actual childhood house. What I’m prepared to say right now is that Drake’s album cover is much dumber; Kanye going with all black for Donda is far from the worst-case scenario.)
Oh, Say Something Nice (And About the Music)
If you’re coming into Donda cold—and though it’s likely far too late, I recommend this—maybe just start with “Off the Grid,” an impressively claustrophobic Brooklyn drill excursion that features an excellent example of however you’d describe what Playboi Carti does (my best guess is malicious hiccuping), as well as a potentially star-making verse from Brooklyn’s own Fivio Foreign, a worthy successor to the dearly missed Pop Smoke who radiates more malice, and more hunger, in two minutes than plenty of other rappers could scrounge up in an hour. (“I’m feelin’ marvelous / Who let the monster loose / They call me a product of my environment / I tell them, ‘Nah, I’m what God produced.’”) You also get a little bit of Good Bad Kanye ...
I got this God power, that’s my leverage
I got this holy water, that’s my beverages
I gotta help myself out of selfishness
I just bought a floor out of Selfridges
… and, for contrast, just a touch of Bad Bad Kanye: “I talk to God everyday, that’s my bestie / They playin’ soccer in my backyard, I think I see Messi.” Kanye on Donda turns on a dime from godly to gluttonous, introspective to weapons-grade obnoxious. (“Personal worth is not what a person is worth,” he observes on “Pure Souls,” a church-organ-driven exaltation costarring Roddy Ricch and the Jamaican singer Shenseea. “I can give a dollar to every person on Earth.”)
But what further complicates—and, OK, maybe enriches—a song like “Off the Grid” is the turbulent journey it’s already taken. Here’s the thing about streaming three different stadium listening parties for your upcoming record: There are at least three distinct versions of Donda, four if you count the one that finally hit streaming services. “Off the Grid” began life as a reference track featuring Pusha T from earlier Donda sessions before Kanye debuted it at the second Atlanta listening party, and it’s added about a minute of running time, shed any trace of Pusha T, and fine-tuned the Brooklyn drill swoops and vertiginous bass drops that make the final cut so mesmerizing. (A shame to lose Pusha T, though.) It’s the best-case scenario for the constant tinkering and verse-swapping that is now, apparently, a crucial part of the Kanye West Album Experience. Even a relatively chill space-lullaby interlude like “Moon” now has an arduous and confusing backstory: Kid Cudi was added to Version 2 (the second Atlanta show), then pulled off Version 3 (Chicago), then added back for the official release. (Cudi was also added to Young Thug–featuring “Remote Control” for Atlanta 2 before being axed from the third and official versions of Donda.) These decisions feel arbitrary, though that does mean that Kanye will, if only in spite of himself, make some good ones.
Anarchy has its drawbacks, of course. “Jail” has an arena-rap grandeur to it, all chunky power chords and a legit scream-along chorus (“Guess who’s goin’ to jail tonight?”) and enough forward momentum that you barely notice that the drums don’t kick in until the last 30 seconds. But that’s the song with the low-energy Jay-Z verse (“God in my cell, that’s my celly / Made in the image of God, that’s a selfie”) that kept getting added (allegedly just hours before the first Atlanta show) and subtracted, and that’s the song with DaBaby and Manson fouling up the remix. (DaBaby accuses his detractors of taking food off his daughters’ table; Manson at least has the grace to be all but inaudible.) Not a good sign when C-minus Jay-Z is your best-case scenario, but them’s the breaks.
Donda throughout is a ceaseless barrage of features, ranging from Chaotic Good (Jay Electronica’s Wikipedian barrage of proper nouns on “Jesus Lord”) to Chaotic Neutral (always a thrill to hear Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine and for that matter the Lox, even if it’s not exactly the best rapping they’ve ever done) to Chaotic Evil. (Lil Yachty’s fake-tough verse on “Ok Ok” is extravagantly terrible: “Havin’ my hands ‘round her neck, grip tight like a noose / Tell you a story with a bad ending, ‘cause I’m not a Seuss.” Sir, this is not an Arby’s.) The Pop Smoke snippet “Tell the Vision,” repurposed from what is already the second posthumous Pop Smoke album, July’s Faith, makes me fervently wish there won’t be a third. Give Travis Scott a break, and give us a break from Travis Scott; I dislike Baby Keem’s falsetto very much. Chris Brown is here, of course; he’s still pissed that one of his verses got cut, of course. Meanwhile, exposure to multiple listening parties really fucks with the way you experience the hooks on these songs; the staccato bravado of “Junya” (“Junya Watanabe on my wrist”) is now grating on me, whereas the mellow Gospel drone of “Jesus Lord” is aging well even though its two versions (the Lox made the remix) account for a full 20 minutes of this 108-minute record. The exhaustion runs deep, even with the songs you grow to love.
In happier news, the Houston rapper and singer Vory, best known for cowriting work on Drake’s Scorpion and Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s Everything Is Love, gets several showcase tracks on Donda and nails them all, with a rasp that darkens the electro-goth ambiance of “God Breathed” and a dancing falsetto that elevates the airy melancholy of “Jonah,” also featuring a heartbreaking eulogy of a verse from Lil Durk. (“Know how it feel to lose a brother, we got a bond still / Twenty-six years, pops got out to see his son killed.”) Kanye can bring the best out of someone just as easily as he can bring out the worst; the perpetual roulette wheel of Donda, coupled with the way these 27 tracks inevitably blur together only to once again distinguish themselves, ensures that at least you won’t ever get bored even when, inevitably, you start to zone out.
And where is Kanye amid all this grandeur and mourning and ignobility? Divorcing one of the most famous women in the world. (“You made a choice, that’s your bad,” he bellows on “Jail.” “Single life ain’t so bad.”) Still mourning his mother—forever mourning his mother, whose voice haunts the album that bears her name even when she’s not speaking. (“You know, I am my son’s mother,” she notes proudly in an excerpt from a 2007 speech she gave about the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, before distilling an ocean of feeling into just the words my son. Her voice also figures heavily on the rawest early-version Donda song that didn’t make the cut, “Never Abandon Your Family.”) Kanye’s still firing off those groaners, whether it’s rhyming Wakanda with Kan’, duh or Let me be honest with Let me Giannis. He is corny, and wayward, and self-aggrandizing, and often indefensibly callous beyond all measure: That’s the deal we’ve made with this person for 20 years. Take him or leave him. Sometimes leaving him is the humane thing to do.
Also, for all his tinkering and self-editing and wanton rearranging, he doesn’t always get the final sequence right. The last Atlanta version of Donda ended with the elegiac “24,” a Sunday Service Choir collaboration (and Kobe Bryant tribute) in which Kanye legitimately sings his ass off, if only for a precious few lines. (“Gotta make it right ‘fore you left.”) But the official Donda strands that track somewhere in the overwrought middle and settles instead for a bombardment of false endings, from the twinkly and overwrought piano jam “Come to Life” (which sounds like, of all people, the Fray) to that extra-exhausting volley of remixes. (“Ok Ok pt 2” ditches Lil Yachty, at least.) It’s all you can do to drag yourself across the finish line.
There will forever be something fascinating, and maddening, and grudgingly valuable about a pop star of this magnitude with zero interest in generating crowd-pleasing pop hits. (The mellow “Hurricane,” featuring a deft Lil Baby verse and a standard-issue Weeknd hook that evaporates on contact, is the closest Donda gets to conventional thinking, though the Lauryn Hill–sampling “Believe What I Say” has a splendid throwback buoyancy, even if the multiple-versions process did cost us a new Lauryn Hill verse.) To deal with Kanye West in any capacity in 2021 is a punishing, colossally wearying experience, a minefield of bad attitudes and terrible decisions that makes you earn every moment of pleasure, of solace, of relief. Donda is pretty good in places and frustrating in twice as many others, but those flashes of growth and tranquility are worth all the effort, all the teeth-gritting frustration. Right? Right? No? Yes? Maybe? Just be advised that this record may make you the happiest when it’s over, or in my case before it had technically even started.