At long last, the conceptual masterpiece from America’s most interesting man has arrived; Donda was released by Universal Music on Sunday, August 29th, as a surprise to both the listening public and Kanye West himself. The 27-track record has been in production since 2018, and has seen numerous delays, reworkings and brand changes. Yet, while it is a usual occurrence that West, his family, and his music plant themselves firmly in the spotlight of the entertainment industry, the roll-out for this project, as well as his previous efforts over the last few years, and those involved with and surrounding Kanye’s sphere of influence are incredibly chaotic, but integral to understanding the magnitude, controversy, and cultural importance of Donda’s release for the artist, and the industry that supports him. Therefore, in this two-part piece, Kanye West’s recent history, personal and professional, and his most recent full-length, Donda, will be analyzed side-by-side to show comparisons, differences, and the state of West’s status within the music
Without discussing the entire history of the Chicago producer, performer, preacher and presidential candidate, a lens should be pointed first at the release, promo and tour-cycle, or lack thereof, of West’s infamous 2016 commercial darling The Life of Pablo. West announced a new album in January 2016, SWISH, penned for release on February 11th, and began releasing singles for the album to garner hype (a typical musician’s promo cycle). This soon grew hectic to follow, however, as West renamed the project Waves, as well as tying the project to the release of his upcoming clothing line Yeezy Season 3, whose showcase at Madison Square Garden was scheduled for the record’s release date.
Amidst this, West, who was at that point an active memer and public figure on his Twitter, twit controversial statements surrounding the Bill Cosby trial prominent at the time, vilifying himself to many. Again, changing the name of his record to the mysterious acronym T.L.O.P., the album was presented finally as The Life of Pablo along with his showcase on February 11th. Prior the show beginning however, West announced that the record would be delayed per the request of Chance, The Rapper, a collaborator on one of TLOP’s tracks, ‘Waves.’ Released finally on February 14th, it is beloved among hardcore fans of the artist, but the record was far from the favored of critical reviewers. More criticism also came the record’s way, as West repeatedly re-released the record with updated production, often citing the project as a work in progress, or as a “living breathing changing creative expression” (West, Twitter 2016)
After releasing a provocative and objectively incredible artistic statement in his music video for TLOP track ‘Famous’ (mature audiences only!), Kanye embarked on a tour in August 2016 promoting the recently released record, one which caught widespread interest as West’s stage was suspended from the ceilings of the arenas he performed in. After less than four months, West postponed and subsequently cancelled this tour, and was shortly hospitalized, with issues related to his known workaholic mindset. Around the same time, West’s then-wife, Kim Kardashian West, was robbed at gun-point, and Kanye himself faced more backlash from fans after endorsing Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and blasting the music industry, and certain individuals within it, as a whole.
After this coincidental cataclysm to West’s career, although his popularity was far from lost, many began to concern for the rapper and his family. West’s edge has been widely used as his selling point, as his forward-thinking media mindset has constantly kept him in the spotlight. His music has always matched this sharp tone, lying on the cutting edge of production, performance, and lyrical content throughout his multi-decade discography. Here, however, many began to question the words in Kanye’s songs, analyzing his struggles and equating them to the life of the well-known superstar.
West decided then to isolate himself from stardom, leaving behind his Twitter and home in Los Angeles to his home/studio in Wyoming, where he invited collaborators to fly out and work with him; these sessions would later become the original track list for his eighth studio album ye, and the self-titled debut of Kids See Ghosts, a collaborative project with longtime collaborator Kid Cudi. Soon releasing a plethora of non-album related singles (“Lift Yourself,” “Ye vs. the People (staring T. I. as the People)”, “I Love It (& Lil Pump),” and “XTCY*”), West garnered more controversy for messaging within some of the songs, in addition to the exclusion of ‘XTCY’ from ye’s final tracklist, which was released in August of 2018.
After an appearance on TMZ where West made controversial comments regarding MAGA and the “choice” of black slavery (among others), it was revealed that ye was scrapped, and rerecorded within the month before its release. Many West fans criticized the record for its minimalist production and direct lyricism, particularly within the weight of the previously mentioned statements, however many music listeners grasped onto the record for its emotional weight and soulful performances. Regardless of criticisms, West’s ye was one his first records to directly question West’s emotional health, family life, and then-recently diagnosed bi-polar disorder, which would become a central role in West’s direction towards Christian faith.
Kids See Ghost was released a week later, to widespread acclaim from the internet music community at large, even collecting a coveted ’10’ from Anthony Fantano, “The Only Music Critic Who Matters (if You’re Under 25)”. Soon, announcing Yandhi, the artist’s ninth-slated record, for release that September, West came back into the public eye, collaborating with musicians like Nicki Minaj and 6ix9ine, as well as landing himself as the lone feature on xxxtentaction’s first posthumous record, Skins. Yandhi, like TLOP before it, was postponed, and still remains unreleased. The album was supposedly leaked a year later, in July 2019, receiving positive response from fans who ‘acquired’ the record.
2019 also marked the year of West’s integration of faith and spirituality heavily into his music. Beginning the Sunday Service Choir, a gospel choir led by West and attended by many names in music and entertainment alike, West began to transition his music into a gospel-focused direction, and would release Jesus Is King, his actual ninth solo record, in October 2019. Panned by critics but again loved by devoted fans, faith in West was lost again. Amidst this was his strangely platformed presidential campaign, which gained the artist sparks of media attention in the wider American lens.
As 2020 grew to a grinding halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic, West returned to Wyoming with his family, to record music and isolate themselves from the wider, malady-stricken country. Working with a plethora of artists in Wyoming, the entity known first as Jesus Is King Part II, then God’s Country, and finally Donda began to take shape as West began working with landmark producer Dr. Dre in late 2019. Other producers and artists began making their way to the small state to work on the massive project, which would slowly garner hype over the course of 2020.
“Wash Us In The Blood (w/ Travis Scott),” the first single for God’s Country, was released in late June, but would fail to make it onto the final track list of the record, and was soon followed by a snippet of “Donda,” a track featuring and named after his late mother, Donda West, and a speech she delivered to Chicago State University, Kanye’s place of a single year of undergraduate schooling. He renamed the record then to commemorate his mother, with an announced release date of July 24th. This was missed by West, and one day later the rapper released the projected cover for the record (which would soon be replaced by an adaptation of a Louise Bourgeois painting).
Over the course of the next year, many artists reported flying out to Wyoming to record for Donda, however many of them would not make it onto the final recording. West released snippets occasionally on social media in late 2020, both as promotion for the record and his political campaign, which would reveal itself to be mostly for naught, garnering a meager .04% of votes in the 2020 presidential election. Once again exiting twitter, West’s whereabouts and actions were hidden, but as 2021 began, sources confirmed the rapper’s presence working on Donda through social media posts and interviews with collaborators.
The first major news regarding Donda’s release came in July, where Pusha T, close collaborator and friend of Kanye announced a listening event for Donda in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium on July 22nd, and Def Jam Records confirmed the record for a July 23rd release date. After the date was missed for release, it was announced again for release on August 6th, but this would again be postponed on August 5th to the 7th, after the second listening event held in Atlanta, which would be again delayed until the 13th. Apple Music continued to change the release date for Donda, moving from the 13th, to the 15th, to the 20th, which was again, too hopeful for the release of the record. Another listening event was announced, with West performing in Chicago on the 26th, and an official release date of the record to be August 27th.
Returning to those featured on the record, many collaborators were like West’s listening audience, along for the ride as the creation of Donda swerved, collapsed, changed and was reborn. West, revealed in social media posts from collaborator and producer Mike Dean, recorded many of Donda’s final tracks within one of the stadium’s locker rooms converted into a recording studio, bringing along Playboy Carti and 2 Chainz, as well Jay-Z to record a day and hours before the listening event, respectively. More songs were added with each listening event, and new collaborators with them. Major controversy then found West at his third listening party, where he revealed two more collaborators for Donda: DaBaby and Marilyn Manson, both of whom have received widespread condemnation from music fans, artists, and the industry itself for their homophobic comments and numerous sexual assault allegations, testimonies and lawsuits, respectively. Again, the release date was missed, and for the weekend the future of Donda was truly uncertain.
On the morning of Sunday, August 29th, however, this changed. Donda was released, and has since climbed to the one of the most streamed albums within a 24-hour window on both Spotify and Apple Music. As stated before, however, West reports that the record was released without his consent, and “Jail pt 2,” which includes both DaBaby and Marilyn Manson as collaborators, was initially left off the album by all platforms. The track has since found its way to streaming services, but West’s label has denied his allegations. Despite its numerous delays, receiving mixed acclaim from critics, and undergoing post-release production changes (akin to The Life of Pablo), Donda has still managed to encapsulate the music listening land thus far.
This treatise has explained much of West’s recent history (excluding much of West’s more recent dramas regarding Twitter rants, his divorce and resurgent Drake beef), but failed to talk about the record in question, and its strengths and weaknesses, both musically and compositionally, and its integral role in West’s role as an entertainer, artist, worshipper and individual. West’s place thus far in society has been that of controversy and iconography. His devout fan following and musical ascension has been a drastic one, often clashing with other musicians who stood in the artists way (Taylor Swift, Drake, Wiz Khalifa, the Carters, etc.). A true showman, West thrives in the buzz surrounding him, and this has influenced his creative process greatly.
With Donda, we see all sides of Kanye West, but similarities to The Life of Pablo ring surprisingly true: Donda went through multiple name changes, delays, post-release production updates, performance quarrels, and was surrounded with industry pressure and personal controversy in a nearly identical form that of West’s 2016 record. It is also West’s longest project track and length-wise, as was TLOP with the exclusion of his debut, The College Dropout. Singles were released for Donda that did not make their way to the track list, as many of West’s records before (ie. ye, “Na Na Na,” and other unreleased Kanye West releases), and the record also showcases West’s versatility as an artist in every aspect, as have his previous works. Donda’s charm, however, comes from its utter uniqueness in many aspects from much of the rapper’s discography. It’s bombastic, but controlled; familiar, still evolved; classic, yet forward thinking. This is the most impressive factor of the record, as the brand of Kanye West on display has taken influence from all previous iterations, and molded it into the most mature version of his musicality yet. This will be expounded in the second part of this article, coming soon!