‘Donda’ Poses More Questions Than Answers

After more than 400 days, innumerable controversies and three highly-publicised album listening events, 'Donda' is finally here. MTV contributor Will Brewster considers its complexities.

It’s here: after more than 400 days, innumerable controversies and three highly-publicised album listening events, Donda is finally here. But how does it stack up to the rest of Kanye’s catalogue, and does it answer any of the many questions it’s poised?

Spanning 27 tracks and clocking in at almost two hours, Donda certainly isn’t a record for the faint-hearted. It’s complex and somewhat conflicted at times, yet equally visceral and spectacular in its own right, with the overall production and curation of the record making for quite an impressive aural spectacle.

Donda, like most Kanye albums, was unexpectedly unleashed amid a furious media storm over the weekend, and it’s fair to assume that the various controversies Ye’s stirred up this time around will dominate all Donda discourse for the foreseeable future. There’s the fact that Universal supposedly released the record without Kanye’s own consent, and of course, the issue of “Jail 2” being blocked from the album due to DaBaby’s feature (more on that later on).

However, first and foremost, it’s important to judge Donda by face value and analyse its purely musical content before getting stuck into any societal ramifications it may present.

There’s little doubting that Donda is Ye’s best produced solo record since The Life of Pablo, and some would even stake a case for it being sonically superior to 2013’s Yeezus, however wrong an opinion that may be. The record darts between soaring gospel, arena rock, menacing trap and sparse electronica with reckless abandon, and the ensuing dizziness certainly makes for one hell of a wild ride.

Alongside his own production, Donda sees Ye reunite with a bevy of longtime collaborators like 88 Keys, Jess Bhasker, Swizz Beats and the incomparable Mike Dean, whose presence behind the synthesiser is key to the tone of Donda. Other prominent contributions come from French electro don Gesaffelstein, Hammond organ virtuoso Cory Henry and Ratatat bassist Evan Mast (credited as E*vax), while keynote Australian duo FNZ and Atlanta wunderkind Wheezy also lend their talents at various points throughout.

Also unique to Donda is that it’s largely void of the eclectic crate-digging that seemed to define the production of so many past Kanye releases. Aside from a bizarre snippet of the Globglogabalab tacked onto the end of “Remote Control” and some sparing moments on “Heaven and Hell”, “Praise God” and “New Again”, the magnificent Lauryn Hill flip on “Believe What I Say” is one of the only tracks to be prominently sample-based. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Kanye’s flipped more than enough samples in his time, and Donda’s palate of brooding synths and gospel choirs is immersive enough as it is anyway.

In what feels like a full-circle moment, Tyler, The Creator also shows up to earn his first production credit on a Kanye solo record, laying down a soulful piano performance on “Come to Life”. Perhaps one of Donda’s most vulnerable moments, “Come to Life” marks one of the many moments on the album where Kanye lets loose with his singing voice, and it must be said, he’s actually sounding better than ever. It’s been well-documented that Kanye lacks faith in his singing voice - hence the prevalence of AutoTune on much of his earlier melodic material – but on Donda, Ye’s vocal performances prove to be one of the record’s most magnetic aspects.

Let’s touch on the cast of collaborators Kanye’s assembled for Donda. It’s long been said that Ye is a master of squeezing career-best performances out of his collaborators on his own tracks. Think Rick Ross on “Devil In A New Dress”, “Ultralight Beam” with Chance the Rapper, innumerable tracks with Jay-Z and Pusha T – the list goes on and on. On Donda, again, Kanye assumes more of a curatorial role as opposed to that of a composer, and it’s a role that pays dividends for the most part. There’s no denying that he’s leading the creative direction of the record, but he’s certainly giving his guests ample room to let their own talents shine.

“Remote Control” sees Young Thug delivers one of his most heartfelt and melodic verses to date, while on the hard-hitting “Off The Grid”, Fivio Foreign unleashes over an ominous drill groove so good that it even compels Kanye himself to go in too, with the 44-year-old MC treating the track to one of his fiercest performances since 2015’s “All Day”.

Elsewhere, Jay Electronica also turns in a characteristically wordy verse on “Jesus Lord”, The Weeknd and Lil Baby dominate on the haunting “Hurricane”, and Don Tolliver and Kid Cudi come together to make a perfect pair on the album’s soothing midpoint “Moon”. Travis Scott, Roddy Ricch, Westside Gunn and Jadakiss are also impressive in their appearances, and Playboi Carti, Lil Yachty and Lil Durk’s features are relatively strong too.

However, for all its key guests, it’s curious to note the sparing amount of names in Donda’s liner notes that aren’t men. Out of the 30+ guests to receive credit on the album, a scant five are female – Syleena Johnson, 070 Shake, Shenseea, harpist Brandee Younger and Stalone, who was mistakingly credited as Ariana Grande on the original drop – and as quality as their features may be, they don’t seem to occupy the same kind of roles as their male counterparts. This figure, of course, is excluding the female members of the Sunday Service Choir and MUSYCA Children's Choir, who appear on several tracks, as well as the snippets of Dr. Donda West that are scattered throughout.

Look, if we’re being perfectly honest, Kanye shouldn’t have to feel obliged to fill a gender quota on his records. He’s obviously curated Donda this way, and it’s not uncommon for him (or many other hip-hop artists, if we’re being realistic) to rely on the minds and voices of male creators when in album mode: in fact, the very same criticism could be levelled toward much of his solo catalogue.

However, the fleeting number of female collaborators on Donda is particularly eyebrow-raising when considering some of Ye’s past antics have been received among women both in and outside the music industry, including his horrid comments about abortion, the underlying ramifications of his fling with the MAGA hat and his long history of feuding with Taylor Swift, whose power as a cultural moral compass should not be underestimated in this equation.

It’s also extremely questionable as to what exactly Kanye is trying to prove right now by throwing his support behind DaBaby and Marilyn Manson in such a public manner. After bringing both artists out at his recent Chicago listening party – a stunt interpreted by most to be a misguided statement against cancel culture – it was then revealed that they were also featured on the second version of “Jail”, which only caused further uproar among West’s detractors.

Of course, DaBaby will likely soon be forgiven for his callous comments against the LGBTQI+ community, and while many would like to point the finger at Chris Brown’s feature on “New Again” as being provocative, he’s featured on far too many tracks from supposedly “woke” artists for his appearance on Donda to be viewed as provocative. However, there’s simply no excusing Ye for featuring a historic creep who is currently facing four sexual assault cases on the record, as brief as his appearance may be.

We all know that Kanye loves to use such public outcry as a marketing ploy; after all, the man did once declare that controversy was his gym. Still, there’s just something a little unsettling about seeing someone who was once a progressive force in hip-hop throw his support behind an alleged abuser in this manner, and then claim it was all a statement about cancel culture to deflect any valid criticism.

This behaviour is guaranteed to grab headlines for all the wrong reasons, is humiliating to consistently defend against, and at the end of the day, makes being a Kanye West fan quite an exhausting and emotionally-draining experience. On that note, his ongoing feud with Drake, which, let’s face it, is less about personal issues and more about selling records – is just proving to be cornier by the minute, with both men continuing to embarrass themselves with each fickle dig toward one another.

Even more frustrating, still, is the fact that Kanye hardly addresses any of these concepts across Donda. In fact, save for a few Bible belters and billionaire brags, Ye reveals little in his lyrics that should be considered compelling or personally poignant, even in light of its namesake. He’s even cut “Never Abandon Your Family”, the only song that explicitly mentioned his divorce from Kim Kardashian-West, from the final tracklist, and the track that saw Pusha T take him to task over his infamous North Carolina presidential rally is also absent from the final cut.

Nevertheless, Donda is still a good album. Kanye mightn’t be the same musical innovator or culturally progressive force he once was, but then again, who is after ten records and more than 25 years working in the industry? Few other artists have ever been expected to deliver so much with each release, and the man shouldn’t feel pressured to continue delivering the kind of groundbreaking art he once did.

However, the implications of his support of Marilyn Manson will certainly tarnish his already-battered reputation, and for all its features, the absence of female voices across Donda is one that many listeners will take note of. Again, it seems that Kanye’s prolonged period of silence throughout this album cycle, be it for better or for worse, has only created more questions than it’s solved. Even when lacking in magic, the man continues to be a mystery: maybe that’s why we keep listening so intently.

Stream Kanye West’s album, Donda, just below.

This is an opinion piece written by Will Brewster, a Melbourne-based writer and producer. Follow him on Twitter @_willbrewster.

More Kanye Stuff:

Seven Things I Learnt From Kanye’s Donda Listening Party

Ranking Every Song On Kanye’s 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy'

Kanye West’s Appearance On Joe Rogan Wasn’t The Trainwreck Many Expected

Latest News