Kanye West’s 10th album, Donda, has been delayed more often than the new James Bond movie. Arriving after several self-imposed deadlines were blown through by the rapper, it confirms that West has once and for all surrendered his licence to chill. Donda is an intense, often overwrought affair, brimming with heart-on-sleeve diatribes from West and with grooves that go off like monster trucks rumbling around a stadium.
Stadiums are, as it happens, arguably the best environment in which to experience the LP. Kanye has been holding mass listening parties at open air venues in American (allegedly making up to $12 million in ticket sales on the way).
These events have seen 44-year-old former US Presidential candidate present the record as a work in progress (he even temporarily relocated to an amphitheatre in Atlanta in order to tweak it). And he treated fans to gimmicks such as a full scale recreation of the Chicago house belonging to his late mother (after whom Donda is named) and a baffling appearance by the recently-cancelled Marilyn Manson.
Those are the sort of epic, ego-powered flourishes with which Kanye has become synonymous and to which he remains committed since becoming a born-again Christian. Epic and ego-powered also sums up Donda itself – it’s a tour de force presented without irony or self-awareness and which often seems driven by nothing other than Kanye’s insatiable appetite for narcissistic brooding. It feels as if we’re all in the cheap seats, gazing down at Kanye’s navel as night descends and our bums go numb.
As an unspooling piece of conceptual art it’s fascinating. As pop, though, it is a thoroughly mixed bag. Kanye has actually become a more supple rapper as he has left behind his hit-making days (his landmark release My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is now 11 years old).
And he is in full rhapsodic flow on Donda as, over a soul-sucking 27 tracks, he variously discusses his faith (it feels as if Donda contains more Jesus references than the New Testament). Other subjects include the collapse of his marriage to Kim Kardashian (who popped up wearing a symbolic wedding gown at the listening party last week in Chicago) and his late mother.
It is stacked with guests, too – though there is no space for Cleveland Ohio rapper DaBaby (widely scorned for expressing homophobic opinions earlier in the summer). Kanye had previously included a line from the rhymer on the song Jail. DaBaby, real name Jonathan Kirk, also popped up alongside Manson at the Chicago party.
But in the hours before Donda’s launch, Kanye claimed Kirk’s manager had delayed Donda by refusing to clear his client’s verse. The album was released with an older recording of the song featuring rapper-mogul Jay-Z, with whom Kanye collaborated on 2011’s Watch The Throne album before a subsequent falling out; shortly afterwards Jail Part 2, with DaBaby’s verse intact, appeared on the track list. Additional guests include Young Thug, Kid Cudi and Ariana Grande, though most of these cameos are in the form of extended snippets. Nobody comes across as keen to outstay their time on Planet Kanye.
Jail is typical of Donda. It is maximalist hip hop, full of gleaming, swooping grooves and several kitchen sinks worth of production (alongside West, more than 10 producers and writers receive credits).
That “more is more” sensibility continues across all 148 minutes and 49 seconds. A falsetto-fuelled chorus on Hurricane confirms the arrival of Super Bowl headliner The Weeknd. And West takes a bombastic swing at his detractors on Junya: “why can’t losers ever lose in peace.. Better find God before you find me.”
Kim Kardashian is the centre of attention on Believe What I Say. One of Donda’s poppiest moments, it harks back to West’s Daft Punk-sampling hit Stronger before concluding with a bitter spoken-word outro. “When you said you wanted to leave,” goes a line clearly directed at Kardashian. “I told you I loved you… which you didn’t believe.”
West’s mother, who passed away in 2007, aged just 58, is another recurring presence. She is sampled on the title track delivering an impassioned speech on the subject of her son’s genius. And then in jumps Ariana Grande to sing, “for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory.”
Politics is largely kept in the background. However, on Jesus Lord there is a speech by Larry Hoover Jr, whose father, Larry Hoover, is serving six life sentences of this involvement with Chicago gang, the Gangster Disciples. West has campaigned for his sentence to be commuted and is said to have raised the issue with Donald Trump when he met the President at the Oval Office (before turning on Trump to himself run for President).
West put religion front and centre of his previous long-player, 2019’s Jesus Is King. Faith is likewise woven throughout Donda – and he abides by his pledge not to pepper his rhymes with expletives. Nonetheless, the new album lacks the happy-clappy born again quality that, with Jesus Is King, sent some hop hip fans screaming for the hills.
Many Kanye fans are resigned to the fact he is in artist in an irreversible tailspin. These disillusioned devotees are likely to be more intrigued than thrilled by Donda. It is a strange, overwrought record. Listening to it demands you step inside West’s head and see the world from his perspective.
He is, it is true, a singular talent and his inner monologues crackle with an undeniable dark alchemy. And yet, like a sermon that goes on too long, Kanye’s stream-of-conscience observations on Jesus, Kim Kardashian and the importance of being Kanye suffer for an absence of breathing space. Full of sound and fury it may be – but West’s latest ultimately lacks direction.