Kanye West wore a complete face mask while hosting three live-streamed listening sessions for his tenth studio album. He didn’t say anything else or even tweet. After years of upsetting loyal followers with dives into conservative politics and often tiresome media spectacle, pop’s King of All Controversies mainly let the music speak for itself with the release of “Donda.”
It’s a thorny, intimate divorce record full of reflection, contradictory emotions, and spurts of musical inventiveness in the vein of Marvin Gaye’s “Here, My Dear” or Phil Collins’ “Face Value.” It’s also a virtually full house for up-and-coming artists half West’s age: Shenseea, Fivio Foreign, Baby Keem, The Weeknd, Lil Yachty, and Roddy Ricch. Drill music coexists with church organs – so many organs!
There’s New Kanye’s sincere adoration of God — “he’s done miracles on me” — mixed in with Old Kanye’s witty self-awareness: “I’ll be honest, we’re all liars.” “I repent for everything I’m about to do again.” There are references to reggae icon Buju Banton, rap luminaries JAY-Z, The LOX, and Jay Electronica, as well as several barbs at longstanding foe Drake.
Its 27 tracks total one hour and 49 minutes.
It turns out that it isn’t a divorce album after all: West seemed to burn himself on fire at the last listening party in Chicago before reconciling with his estranged wife, who was dressed in a veiled bridal gown. Okay, so maybe he’s not done with the media circus yet.
It’s a lot to process. But West manages to put together a remarkably coherent compilation, his finest album since 2010′s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” There’s a hazy narrative arc here, from sin to salvation, and it’s reflected in the dark sonic beauty. Wobbly synth stabs on openers “Jail” and “God Breathed” jangle nerves in the “Yeezus” manner, while lengthy, contemplative chords provide a sense of euphoric ascent to the stunning concluding pair of “Come to Life” and “No Child Left Behind.”
Throughout, West leans into his grief, focusing on his mother Donda’s 2007 death and marriage difficulties. “Believe What I Say” sees him rapping over a Lauryn Hill sample to directly target Kim Kardashian West and “celebrity turmoil that only Brad will know.” There are far too many family secrets.” Marilyn Manson is credited as a composer on “Jail,” and he was there at the Chicago listening party, a typical West provocation that many fans will never forgive after Manson was fired by his own record company in February after sexual assault allegations.
Yes, it “gets the audience moving,” and West appears to include Manson as part of his larger investigation of dualism, morality, mortality, and legacy. A highlight is “Pure Souls,” which features a repeated chorus that transitions midway from the Trumpian adage “The truth is just what you get away with” to the existential. “The only thing you can get away with is the truth.”
West, as usual, is more concerned in evoking emotion with music than with sophisticated language. The sung melody of “Remote Control” is so emotionally compelling that it’s difficult to blame Young Thug for the lines “I live on the Titanic, and I have the ability to rock your boat.” While several of the guests produce career-best lyrics, especially Five Foreign’s “Off the Grid,” “They sometimes go off-topic and divert attention away from West’s central theme.
Nonetheless, “Donda” is a comeback in every respect for one of pop’s most unique talents.