Kanye West’s Donda: a blockbuster with a reticent lead

While West’s latest album is an exceptional musical experience, it leaves listeners wanting more from Kanye himself.

[One-sentence description of what this media is: "A photo of a vaccine site on USC campus" or "Gif of dancing banana". Important for accessibility/people who use screen readers.]

Donda is a grand experience. After two years of piecing together Yandhi scraps followed by a month of low-quality listening party leaks, the moment that Kanye West’s 10th solo album actually dropped was almost surreal. It felt like the theater big screen finally going black after half an hour of trailers. However, simply comparing the feel of Donda to a movie would undersell just how truly blockbuster the project feels.

Associating the project with gimmicky explosions, Vin Diesel and Facebook-worthy quotes about family would be a disservice to the unique experience the album. While Donda does dabble in fan service and has its fair share of groan-worthy moments, the album manages to create an experience that makes other blockbuster projects feel like a one-location film. Highly anticipated, stacked with beloved characters and backed by an endless budget, it’s the Avengers: Endgame of albums.

Depending on how you view West’s actions over the last few years and where you stand on the month of stadium listening parties, the 44-year-old rapper either plays the role of a flawed but lovable hero or an annoyingly admirable villain – or his actions have pushed you away from the Kanye West sonic universe altogether. Unless you’re one of the few strong-willed members of the last category, West had you exactly where he wanted you: emotionally invested before the first Apple Music livestream even began.

Between the generation-defining album 808s & Heartbreak and classic singles like “Hey Mama” and “Only One,” it’s nearly impossible to be familiar with West’s music and not feel the love he’s expressed for his mother over the years. An album named after her compels even the strongest of West haters to instinctively drop their guards and expect a loving tribute. Of course, in true West fashion however, he slaps you in the face and goes the opposite direction as soon as you think you have him figured out. He resparks a beef with one of the biggest artists in the world, goes out of his way to work with several problematic artists and repeatedly delays the album, thus kicking off the tried-and-true Kanye West album listening experience of constantly having to question whether to fight, take flight or sit back and enjoy.

At 27 tracks (technically 23 if you discount the different versions of four songs), West delivers a lot to enjoy on the album. Kanye has already proven his ability to successfully intersect his religious beliefs with his hip hop prowess – “Jesus Walks” peaked at number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2004 and JESUS IS KING won the 2021 Grammy for Best Contemporary Christian Album – however, tracks like “Come to Life,” “Jesus Lord” and “24” prove that, after years of tinkering with different blends of rap and gospel on The Life of Pablo, Kids See Ghosts and Jesus Is King, West has mastered the ability to push non-secular music to the forefront. However, as impressive as West’s ability to blend gospel with rap is, it’s something his past success already proved to listeners.

What makes Donda truly stand out, for better and for worse, is West’s combination of that mastered skill with another one of his gifts: the ability to fully unlock a feature artist’s potential.

From newer artists like Baby Keem to decades-old acts like The Lox, Donda served as the perfect reminder of or coming-out party for all artists involved. The recurrent gospel theme of the album paired with West’s legendary production and mostly underwhelming rapping creates the perfect juxtaposition for each feature.

For example, on “Off the Grid” Kanye raps “thank God, look what He did” only for Playboi Carti to follow it up not even 10 seconds later with a menacing “homicide, homicide” chant and a verse dedicated to his opps and Atlanta strip clubs. Normally, nothing about that Carti feature would stand out – when placed next alongside the straightedge backdrop of Donda, however, the edginess of Carti’s lyrics ring louder than ever before. Even an artist as non threatening as Baby Keem comes off as gritty when he starts his verse with “still on sight” on “Praise God” after following up the song’s religious hook of “I serve, follow your worth, see with new sight, into the night”.

[One-sentence description of what this media is: "A photo of a vaccine site on USC campus" or "Gif of dancing banana". Important for accessibility/people who use screen readers.]

Features steal the show a handful of times on Donda, and while that can be considered a negative in its own right, it’s the space those features occupy that leaves the album feeling stripped of its main subject. Love him or hate him, listeners who tuned into the album did so expecting a deep dive inside the mind of Kanye West. Instead, West offered just enough to be vulnerable but not enough to fully rebuild the connection he tore down over the past years.

“Hurricane,” formerly referred to as “80 degrees,” is the perfect example of West’s tradeoff of personalization for polish, as previous versions featured a high-pitched West singing the hook while the official release displays a pitch-perfect The Weeknd. Yes, the decision made the song more radio and playlist-friendly, but in exchange, it lessened the connection between West and heavy lyrics like “finally free, found the God in me” and “Father hold me close, don’t let me drown”. Even songs like “Believe What I Say” and “Heaven and Hell” that technically count as highlights leave you upset that there’s not more solo West.

It feels like West wants to share but is afraid to say too much, and after years of saying too much on platforms like SNL and TMZ, West cutting himself off on Donda is disappointing.

After years of West going out of his way to claim the public spotlight, when it was finally time to tell the world how he felt on his terms, he passed the mic or cut himself short. Outside of Jay-Z’s “red cap” line on “Jail”, the Kanye West-Donald Trump relationship is untouched. His relationship with Kim Kardashian is addressed on “Lord I Need You” and sporadically across the album, but he scrapped the most vulnerable divorce-themed song of the project, “Never Abandon Your Family”. And despite being named after his mom, the 58 opening chants of “Donda” and a few Donda West soundbites are the only real connection to the album’s muse. It feels like West wants to share but is afraid to say too much, and after years of saying too much on platforms like SNL and TMZ, West cutting himself off on Donda is disappointing.

All in all, the blockbuster template of Donda served its purpose. Like Endgame, West brought everyone’s favorites together and let them shine on an endless budget. As a result, the project broke streaming records, reached nearly unmatchable highs and created an experience that listeners will wish they could experience for the first time again. Unfortunately, after the last few years of drama around West, a great musical experience wasn’t enough. Donda needed a fearless, monologue-heavy lead to explain away West’s years of baggage; instead, the project leaned on its blockbuster template in hopes that enough explosive moments would substitute for explanations.