An Inconsistent, Telling Look into Kanye’s World
Reading Time: 4 minutes
There’s a lot of mythology surrounding Kanye West’s creative process. A $3 million recording budget for the Hawaii-based production of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (2010) and an eight day writing cram on a secluded Wyoming ranch for “ye” (2018) have added to the notion that West is an unparalleled, almost superhuman creative. Yet the specifics of his artistic process have been surprisingly opaque, especially considering he produces his music so meticulously and with so many collaborators. Excluding “The Life of Pablo” (2016) and “Jesus is King” (2019), whose tweaks following their release were minor and sporadic, nearly all of the writing, mixing, mastering, and arranging has gone on behind the scenes.
With 2021’s “Donda,” we get a much closer look. Rolled out through a trilogy of listening parties in mega stadiums throughout the U.S. and with much of the studio time being broadcast via Apple Music, the development of “Donda” has been open and public. Fans watched as West transformed the lo-fi, haphazardly compiled tracks of the first listening party into something more refined for the second. Then, they sat back as he replaced and edited features between the second and third parties, many changes stirring up controversy. Even when the album was released on streaming services, West insisted the album was published without his permission and remained unfinished. “Donda” is a living, breathing project and is likely to stay that way. Or at least it certainly feels like it.
Each of these developments has allowed the audience to follow along, getting an unprecedented look into West’s creative process. It’s been telling: unpopular, unexpected, and uncharacteristic changes between listening parties have evinced West’s individuality as an artist, showing that his artistic instincts and preferences are unaffected by public opinion. It almost feels like West has beta tested this album, only to completely ignore any feedback that may have been sent his way. As respectable as that direction is for an auteur like West, not all of his decisions have been in the album’s best interest. Though watching “Donda” grow and evolve has, in some ways, allowed for a more personal connection between the music and the listener, any heightened value is diminished by the fact that the final result isn’t all that impressive.
West’s erratic selection of genres and features might reflect his jumbled state of mind, but they also yielded a wildly inconsistent tracklist. The best moments of “Donda” balance West’s thoughts on his marriage, his faith, and the criminal justice system, but the worst are bitter, aimless, and trite. He even modulates between insightful and banal on individual songs. The album’s true opener, “Jail,” starts out as a thumping arena rock track in which West uses jail as a metaphor for his post-divorce life, claiming “God gon’ post my bail tonight.” Unfortunately, his apt lyricism is derailed by one of Jay-Z’s worst lyrics ever: “Made in the image of God, that’s a selfie.” After Hov’s verse, the electric guitars give way to dry percussion—the first of many pointless detours that drag the runtime of “Donda” to nearly two hours. “God Breathed” has some interesting and spectral production, but tacking two minutes of instrumentals onto the end of the track was another unnecessary runtime addition. “Jesus Lord” is similarly protracted, padding its near-nine minute runtime with a lengthy Jay Electronica verse, on which he spews anti-Semitism and conspiracy. Roddy Rich and Shenseea’s stellar performances on “Pure Souls” are wasted by the atrocious speaking on the outro. The production on “Praise God” is too skeletal and inessential to warrant a spot on the tracklist, and the features from Baby Keem and Travis Scott hardly make a case for their inclusion. The thin organs and overweight bass on “Junya” clash horribly, and the lyrics are completely off topic. While “Believe What I Say” is “very, very vibeworthy,” the upbeat, heavily compressed bassline feels like a cutting-room floor scrap from “The Life of Pablo” and feels out of place amongst the eerie, chorally-tinged second leg of the album that it transitions into.
However, the choral sections of “Donda” are some of its most impressive—West employs a wholly unique vocal processing technique that gives the ensemble vocals a washed out, unearthly timbre. “24,” “No Child Left Behind,” and “Lord I Need You” are centered around said choral vocals, and thus, they are some of the album’s greatest highlights. “Jonah,” “Keep My Spirit Alive,” and “Moon” feature fantastic, uplifting hooks, as well as stellar feature verses from Chicago natives Lil Durk and Vory, Griselda rappers Conway the Machine and Westside Gunn, Don Toliver, and long-time West collaborator Kid Cudi. Lil Baby’s vocals are a tasteful inclusion to “Hurricane,” but The Weeknd’s heavenly hook steals the show. “Off the Grid” is West’s futuristic take on drill; the features from Playboi Carti and Fivio Foreign both complement the production in completely different ways, keeping the song engaging for its entire six minute runtime. “Come to Life” features West’s best vocal performance on the album (and his best singing ever). The swirling pianos and guitar accents build a perfect stage for West to traverse the emotionally confusing and isolating fallout of his divorce, finally finding solace in both his faith and his promise to himself that he will manifest his ambitions to act selflessly in the image of God.
In true West fashion, the journey leading up to the release of “Donda” was nothing short of unpredictable. The problem with this album does not lie in its unpredictability, but instead in the precedence this unpredictability took over the actual musical experience. Listeners can appreciate creative buildup around an album release, but someone as iconic as West should not engage unless he is willing to live up to the hype he has created.