The Held Back Brilliance of Kanye West's 'Donda'

Rory Galvin dissects the buildup and release of Kanye West’s 10th solo album.

There aren’t many people like Kanye West. Even for a celebrity of his size, it’s  always amazing the amount of hate he gets, even when considering the multitude of controversies he inserts himself in. West’s 10th solo album Donda shows the best and worst of the man, highlighting his genius or idiocy depending on who you ask. 

Donda was initially announced for a 2020 release, on West’s Twitter, with an accompanying tracklist on a notepad. The year came and went, with two singles, and one snippet from the artist. The main reason for this delay was probably Kanye’s failed run for the 2020 presidential election, where he was so late to register that some states wouldn’t put him on the ballot. Cut to Summer 2021, and after months of silence, a video of Kanye and Tyler the Creator in the studio surfaces online. Not long after that, the first listening party event was announced. The excitement online was palpable; people were expecting a return to form after the poor reception to Jesus Is King, West’s gospel-infused album. After staying up far too late, what premiered was unfortunately a bit of a dud. For a worldwide reveal, this version of Donda, felt unfinished, uninspired - and at times embarrassing.

Maybe this time the staging felt like Hell, with unfavoured men standing behind Ye, and his childhood home reminding him his mother is no longer around.

As far as presentation goes, the listening party’s minimalist design carried hard - the entirety of the Mercedes Benz Stadium floor was pure white, with projectors displaying massive videos and light shows. It was impressive, and seeing an ant-like West in red contrasting with the stage made for a powerful image. It looked like purgatory as he wandered around pure emptiness while the world watched. The music itself was disappointing, it was clearly demos, songs that weren’t close to being finished. Half of West’s lines were mumbled gibberish, which he does in the song-making process just to have a reference for later. The vocoded autotune hell of Hurricane was especially jarring - a song which had been floating around since 2018 - ruined with absurd decisions. The highlight was the final track Jail, featuring an impressive Jay-Z feature, the first done with West in years; the shocking part was finding out it was recorded mere hours before the event started.

The album that was meant to drop that night was not going to be good, that’s for certain - and before long, there was a delay and a second listening party was announced. This time, it was a massive improvement in every way possible. The stage design was nothing short of awe-inspiring; the spartan grounds of the stadium became filled with people dancing and singing along to the music (including the excellent Sunday Service choir). What’s more was West in the centre of it all, standing over his personal effects from his residency at the stadium - he took it over for a few weeks, slept there and continued to work on the album. There was something heavenly about this show, and everything about it made the music sound better. Most of the songs felt ready to release, and all of the complaints that most had from the previous event were addressed. Of course, we can’t not talk about how the listening party ended, with Kanye literally being raised into the sky as No Child Left Behind played. It looked as if he was going to Heaven to reunite with his mother. Yet, the album still didn’t get released.

By the time the third listening party was announced, many were wondering what needed to be done to justify its existence, but no one had any idea what was coming. This was the event that garnered a metric ton of negative press thanks to the inclusion of controversial figures Da Baby and Marilyn Manson, who both stood behind West for most of the event. For the majority of people, this was disappointing to see, and mostly seemed like a way for West to grab more attention and headlines no matter the consequence. Taking away from that, the event was still a step back from what most would consider the peak. The presentation was probably the best, with West actually recreating his childhood home in the middle of Soldier Field and setting himself on fire by the end of the show (yes, he really did that), but everything else was a misfire. Remember Jail and its great Jay-Z feature? Da Baby replaces him with Marilyn Manson on supporting vocals - great. The track Remote Control was possibly more confusing, as now at the end there was a Globgogabulab sample that certainly overstayed its welcome. For context, it’s a children’s animation that became a huge meme years ago, and its inclusion is baffling. Maybe this time the staging felt like Hell, with unfavoured men standing behind Ye, and his childhood home reminding him his mother is no longer around. The huge amount of fire doesn’t hurt either. For an album that was clearly being changed based on public opinion - it felt like Kanye covered his ears.

West’s incredible artistry conflicts with some of his actions, and fans are made depending on how you weigh those two things.

Donda finally released, not after the third listening party of course, but on a random Sunday morning. It had a plain plack album cover, and held 27 tracks in the end. There’s a reason why the reception for it was so mixed, it has issues, but how much you enjoy the album depends on how much those things affect you. What you’ve heard is true, it’s too long, has some filler and has some mediocre to bad songs, but I still believe it is a great record.

It may take a few listens, but Donda has some of Kanye’s best work in years, and there really is something for everyone too. Songs like Hurricane were fixed with a fantastic hook by the Weeknd - and Come to Life, a song we hadn’t heard previously, is truly beautiful and should be mentioned for years to come. Also, the worrying version of Jail was now relegated to being a bonus track called Jail Pt 2 - essentially an alternate version, and the one you now know to avoid. The biggest disappointment for me was Tell the Vision, as a supposed tribute to the late rapper Pop Smoke it misses the mark due to truly awful mixing and the recycling of a song we’ve heard before from the late artist. Otherwise, there are so many songs to love here: 24, Off The Grid and Moon are all fantastic tracks I wish I had more time to talk about, and that’s only a handful of examples. The length of Donda isn’t something to scoff at, but considering the amount of quality tracks in here, it will be something looked back on and recognised for its highs in the future. Everytime I listen to it, there’s something new to love.

Don’t just read the headlines or watch short clips - to truly understand Kanye West (if that’s even possible), you need to listen to his music. If I was to recommend any of the listening parties, the second one represents the album best, and of course Donda is the return to form we were waiting for. West’s incredible artistry conflicts with some of his actions, and fans are made depending on how you weigh those two things. In a lot of ways, he’s ahead of his time, but goes against himself.