Kanye West’s Donda is, among other things, a message to his estranged wife Kim Kardashian

The juddering, relentless album features a cameo from the disgraced Marilyn Manson

The person with whom Kanye is truly trying to connect with in Donda, it would appear, is his estranged wife Kim Kardashian. Photograph: Jean-Baptiste Lacroix/AFP via Getty

The person with whom Kanye is truly trying to connect with in Donda, it would appear, is his estranged wife Kim Kardashian. Photograph: Jean-Baptiste Lacroix/AFP via Getty

 

Nothing is ever simple with Kanye West. And the rapper’s tenth studio album, Donda, is perhaps his least straightforward undertaking yet.

The record was first announced in the summer of 2020, with the working title God’s Country. Twelve months later, Kanye was hyping Donda – named after his late mother – at a series of mass “listening parties” in America. However, the LP itself remained elusively under lock and key.

And so the ultimate question was not whether Kanye had pulled out of the happy-clappy tailspin into which he plunged with 2019’s Jesus Is King. It was: is Kanye trolling us again?

But then, on a bright Sunday morning, with the world otherwise occupied, Donda was quietly set free. Not with the rapper’s approval, however, as he posted on his Instagram account on Sunday, blaming record company Universal for the premature release. Nevertheless, the album is here – and it of course feels strange that it is a tangible thing rather than a product of Kanye’s overactive dream life.

The good news is it’s an improvement on Jesus Is King. That record was heartfelt and well-intentioned yet ultimately suffered from an excess of “Kumbaya” wholesomeness. It was a cloying inferno that tried to group hug you into submission.

Donda at its best feels like a return to form. It helps that he’s brought in more than a dozen guests to assist with the heavy lifting

Donda is something else: juddering, relentless, and driven by beats that go off like oversized depth charges. At all points throughout its exhausting 148-minute run time, there is a sense of dark forces lumbering just beneath the surface. It’s the Call of Cthulhu of rap records – strange and ominous, rippling with weird, eerie portents.

It’s also a bit of a hall of mirrors. Negotiating the 27 tracks is like wandering through a maze in which every reflection staring back at you is a different version of Kanye.

“God’s not finished,” declares the rapper on 24. This being Kanye – who has legally changed his name to Ye – it is unclear whether he is referring to the divine entity at the centre of Judaeo-Christian theology – or to himself. He is very possibly conflating the two.

Donda at its best feels like a return to form. It helps that he’s brought in more than a dozen guests to assist with the heavy lifting. The Weeknd pops up on Hurricane, crooning “Finally free, found the God in me/ And I want you to see, I can walk on water.”

And there is a fleeting appearance by Jay-Z on Jail which, in reference to the Brooklyn rapper’s nickname, yields the unsurpassable line, “Hova and Yeezus, like Moses and Jesus”.

It’s classic Kanye to make an album full of homages to Jesus but to also sprinkle in cameos by widely shunned figures from popular entertainment

West ran for president of the US in 2020. And though that stunt never really achieved lift-off, it has evidently taught him a few tricks about marshalling bombast on an mass scale. He is, for instance, thought to have made millions from his Donda listening parties in Atlanta and Chicago.

These events provided a glimpse into the inner workings of his id. The most recent, before a crowd of 38,000 at Chicago’s Soldier Field, featured cameos from “cancelled” rapper DaBaby (previously excoriated for homophobic comments) and disgraced shock-rocker Marilyn Manson.

Kanye has invited both back for Donda. Jail features a co-writing credit for Brian Warner (Manson’s real name) and a voice resembling his can be heard on Jail pt 2,which, as a bonus, showcases DaBaby.

It’s classic Kanye to make an album full of homages to Jesus but to also sprinkle in cameos by widely shunned figures from popular entertainment. Even when waxing sincere, he can’t help trying to push his audience’s outrage button.

Half-way through... even the most ardent Kanye fans may be asking themselves if West’s steam-rolling monologues about the agony and ecstasy of being Kanye West will ever end

And yet the person with whom he is truly trying to connect with, it would appear, is his estranged wife Kim Kardashian (who filed for divorce at the start of the year). There were hints of rapprochement last week when Kardashian walked out wearing a wedding dress at the conclusion of the Chicago listening party.

But it has subsequently been reported that she was horrified that West would give a platform to DaBaby and Manson. She is addressed directly on Believe What I Say, as Buju Banton delivers the line “plagued by emotions you were swamped by your needs… your friends are all up in your head even when we’re in bed”.

As with the rest of Donda, the observation is earnest yet breathtakingly egoistical: the only person West wants to be in Kim’s head is obviously Kanye. And it comes half-way through the near two-hours run time, at which point even the most ardent Kanye fans may be asking themselves if West’s steam-rolling monologues about the agony and ecstasy of being Kanye West will ever end.

Donda is undoubtedly a singular album. Whether it’s a fun listen will depend on individual taste. It’s an improvement on Jesus Is King.

At the same time, it’s hard to not to suspect that the best version of Donda was the one that never existed. And that ultimately what we’ll remember from this chapter of Kanye’s career is not the music, but the circus he built around it.

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