Nothing sparks discourse quite like a Kanye West album roll-out. Despite all of his irreverent shit-talking, worsening ability to meet deadlines and instantly-memeable antics, you can always guarantee a Kanye album launch is going to be a spectacle of colossal proportions – for better or for worse.
Last Thursday’s DONDA listening party, held in front of an estimated 42,000 attendees at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium and a further estimated three million via livestream, fell somewhere squarely between the two. An hour and forty two minutes after the event was set to start, a masked, puffer-clad Kanye made his way out onto the stadium floor, where he’d spend the next 45 minutes wordlessly pacing as fifteen tracks that many (perhaps naively) assumed would be released the next day as DONDA played overhead.
In true Kanye fashion, of course, DONDA failed to arrive on streaming services the next day, and the subsequent news that the record had been pushed back by an extra two weeks came to the surprise of absolutely nobody. There’s also a very real possibility that what we did hear on Thursday mightn’t even appear on the final version of DONDA. Kanye is notorious for editing his music after it’s been released, and there’s no doubt that his team will be working overtime as they coop up in Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the next fortnight to complete the album.
What was played on Thursday, however, still offers a tantalising glimpse into Kanye’s pre-album creative process; an at once bewildering and brilliant showing that hints at the dawn of a new era for hip-hop’s once prodigal son. In absence of the final product, we attempt to find meaning in the spectacle of that live-streamed event to try and search for clues for what to expect from DONDA once it finally drops.
1. It’s definitely not finished yet
Whether Kanye pulled the listening party as a stunt to mark his public return or simply to gauge how it sounded over stadium speakers, there is no chance in hell that DONDA is ready for release. Out of the fifteen tracks played during the stream, only a small handful sounded as if they’d been fully recorded, with placeholder bars and choppy vocal takes plaguing tracks like “You’re Gonna Be OK”, “South Carolina” and “New Again.”
The absence of drums across the majority of the record was also dubiously noted by livestream listeners, with many debating as to whether their omission was a product of artistic license or a lack of organisation. Factor in the shoddy track sequencing and the fact that Kanye played an entirely different tracklist at a smaller listening event in Las Vegas last week, and it seems increasingly apparent that Yeezy, once again, is not yet ready to drop the album.
2. It’s feature heavy
This really isn't outside of the norm for Kanye: he’s effectively employed an eclectic cast of guests on albums like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and The Life of Pablo, and the way he taps young talent on DONDA seems to be no different.
Young breakout artists such as Roddy Ricch and Baby Keem feature prominently alongside the likes of Travis Scott, Playboi Carti and Lil Baby, while fellow Chicagoans Lil Dark and Jeremih join Vory for one of the album’s strongest tracks midway through.
However, DONDA isn’t just about the young up-and-comers and chart mainstays: Ye also links up with longtime GOOD Music partner Pusha T on “South California”, and hip-hop fans lost their collective shit when a last-minute verse from Jay-Z was tacked onto the end of its album closer “Heaven and Hell” – but we’ll get to that in more detail later on.
3. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing
Kanye’s curatorial vision often tends to be the strength of his artistic projects, and at present, DONDA’s silver lining is certainly the strength of its features. Pusha T’s references to Kanye’s widely-publicised South Carolina rally from last year are incredibly poignant and Travis Scott and Baby Keem show phenomenal chemistry on album highlight “Praise God”, while Lil Baby, Don Toliver, Lil Durk and Roddy Ricch each prove their heavyweight status in a stellar four-strong run in the album’s mid-stretch.
It’s also very possible that we’ll see a revised DONDA land on streaming services with new contributions from Tyler The Creator, notorious coke-rap crew Griselda and 2 Chainz, who was supposedly responsible for the event’s delay as he recorded a (as of yet unheard) verse at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for inclusion on the finished project.
4. Ye’s still got God on the brain
While not as explicitly evangelical as Jesus Is King or his other Sunday Service endeavours, Kanye’s faith in God is nonetheless a large part of DONDA’s make-up.
Biblical allusions from Kanye and several other guests feature on the album in abundance, and there’s more than a few instrumentals that make heavy use of church organs and gospel choirs, with the cathartic opener “You’re Gonna Be OK” and “No Child Left Behind”, teased prior to the livestream in a commercial for Beats Studio Buds, being the most overtly Christian cuts across the record.
5. The beats are a bit of a mixed bag
Prior to its release, some Twitter fingers associated with the Kanye camp described DONDA as sounding like a cross between Jesus Is King and Yeezus. That’s a slightly reductionist take in my opinion, but from a baseline level, it’s somewhat true – DONDA does feel like a more elaborate, slightly more adventurous expansion of Kanye’s approach to production in recent years, but there’s still certainly room for some improvement before the record hits streaming services.
Frequent collaborator Mike Dean makes some crucial keyboard contributions to the 808s-esque Auto-Tune warble of “Welcome To My Life” and the ethereal Don Tolliver-assisted “Moon”, while “Pure Souls” and “South California” are each built around minimalist piano loops, the latter invoking the chipmunk soul of Kanye’s famed early productions.
“Praise God” and “Hurricane” are both sonic standouts on the track-listing, whereas “Remote Control” and “New Again” would hit harder with a little more fine tuning (or percussion, for that matter).
6. The Throne could return
Jay-Z’s appearance on the backend of album closer "Heaven and Hell" immediately became one of DONDA’s biggest talking points, with the last-minute verse from Hov marking the first time he and Ye have appeared on a track together in five years.
After what’s been a period between the two, it’s obviously a huge moment for one of hip-hop’s most fruitful partnerships to extend an olive branch to one another, and while the prospect of a sequel to Watch The Throne seems doubtful, you just never know what might happen. We’re not fully closing the idea on this one just yet.
7. Kanye doesn’t have much to say right now
Save for a few Bible belters and billionaire humble brags, Kanye seems to show relative restraint as a lyricist on DONDA, which is quite surprising given what’s gone down for him in the past 12 months.
There’s little talk of last year’s South Carolina meltdown or chaotic presidential run (save for Pusha T on “South California”) and fleeting mention of the record’s namesake Donda West, with a merchandise capsule and a subtle namedrop on “Remote Control” being the only instances Kanye makes mention of his mother (although the front half of the album does feature several snippets from a keynote she delivered prior to her death in 2007).
Meanwhile, the breakdown of his marriage is only explicitly addressed on “Welcome To My Life”, where a distraught Kanye repeatedly yelps “I’m losing my family” over weeping electric guitars. It’s a gut-wrenching moment, and given Kim’s attendance at the Atlanta event, must’ve been an incredibly tough public moment for the two.
Even more surprising still is that Kanye hasn’t uttered a single word over the course of this album roll-out. He didn’t even clutch a microphone as he walked out onto the stadium on Thursday, hasn’t done any media (other than rejoin Instagram), and the majority of his recent public appearances have seen him don a mesh mask over his head.
Perhaps a more refined version of DONDA will feature fewer questions and more answers, but for now, we’ll just have to get used to Kanye being silent – for better, or for worse.
This is an opinion piece written by Will Brewster, a Melbourne-based writer and producer. Follow him on Twitter @_willbrewster.