This the new me, get used to me. Donda
Kanye West’s tenth album Donda marks a milestone in his career, bringing him back in the spotlight and giving the perfect representation of where he is right now artistically, mentally, and spiritually. Started as an album and turned into a pop culture phenomenon through monumental stadium-hosted listening parties, it portrays a newly inspired Kanye, committed to his art in a way that we haven’t seen him in a while. No more loafing around wasting his focus with drama and unnecessary side-projects, through this album he now re-establishes his relevancy in today’s musical and cultural landscape.
The road that led to the release of Donda has been rocky to say the least. Reportedly in the works for the last year and a half and postponed for countless times, it led fans to start supposing it was about to be just another long awaited but never released project from the Chicago artist, joining the company of Yandhi, So Help Me God, or Good Ass Job, just to name a few.
Sure, the background wasn’t the smoothest either. Global pandemic, presidential campaign, divorce from Kim Kardashian, and a draining rivalry with Drake were all elements that didn’t help providing the necessary focus in the creative process. Thus, if after his 2019 release Jesus Is King Kanye was back to finally being talked about for his music, he was now going back into a mayhem of controversies and mischievous situations surrounding him. That’s probably part of the reason why at some point – when the Donda project started to take actual shape – he completely changed his approach: he started popping up at random public events, always having his face covered with a ski-mask and avoiding saying a single word to the media or anyone surrounding him. Mysterious and enigmatic, he silenced every voice by silencing his own. It was the beginning of Donda’s album rollout.
Kanye West has an history with album rollouts. Willingly or not, each of his albums has always been anticipated by polarizing and attention-seeking events. From the spark for his debut album The College Dropout (2004) being a near-fatal car accident, to the infamous quote “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” before his sophomore Late Registration (2005); from the peaceful-but-historical rivalry with 50 Cent before Graduation (2007), to the series of Gospel concerts before Jesus Is King (2019). When the time was come, it was very difficult – even for a casual music listener – not knowing that Kanye had an album coming up. Donda made no exception.
Soon the strategy behind Donda’s rollout became very clear: making it all gravitate around listening parties and turning an album release into a pop culture event. To do so, West hired Georgian fashion designer and Balenciaga’s artistic director Demna Gvasalia as a creative director for the whole process. He then rented a football stadium, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, for the first listening party in July, got the tickets sold out in a few hours, and showed up – again – keeping his face covered and his mouth shut. It was time to just let the music speak for him.
Kanye wasn’t actually new to big listening events: in 2016 during a fashion show at the Madison Square Garden for the unveil of his Yeezy Season 3 collection, he exclusively debuted his upcoming album The Life of Pablo to the audience. With one huge different though, if with Pablo Kanye was cheerful, totally involved, and joined by collaborators, this time the whole atmosphere was dark, dingy, and minimalistic. All the whole packed stadium could just look at was an alone Kanye walking around an empty stage. It was coherent with what this album represents, since Donda is dedicated to Kanye’s mother, Donda C. West, passed away in 2008.
The album was supposed to drop after the first listening party. Of course, it didn’t. What Kanye did with this first event was build hype around the record, but most of all he studied the reactions of the listeners, the press, the internet, as instant feedback to how the album has been received. So, he started working on it again without even leaving the stadium, arranging a studio space and a small bedroom inside of it and making it his temporary house until the day of the release.
The build up to the second listening event led to an iconic 24-hours livestream, where fans could watch the creative process of the album, guests visiting Kanye, or him doing push-ups and biceps curl: a vivid representation of the life of a divorced man getting his life together again through work and dedication.
The album didn’t drop after the second listening event either, but at this point it wasn’t even the main subject anymore. Kanye was back in the spotlight he missed, and he was doing it through music but – ironically – without releasing any music. Donda could have never actually come out and it would have still made sense, since Kanye shifted the whole concept of listening parties and made them – not the album – the new main characters. Fans weren’t even complaining anymore. He could have toured the whole World this way, making slight changes to the tracks and having the public living a unique, new, different experience at every show.
The streak of listening parties ended with the third one, the most complex and rich of symbolism. Kanye moved from Atlanta to his hometown Chicago. What the fans watched at the Soldier Field Stadium went from Kanye mocking cancel culture by being joined on stage by Marylin Manson and DaBaby, to him burning inside a representation of his childhood home, to a reenactment of his marriage with Kim Kardashian, featuring the real Kim. When the music stopped and the stage turned into a pitch black, everyone just came to the realization that they had just witnessed the first artist making listening parties more important than the album itself.
The album finally came out a week later, and it led to a polarization between the audience that Kanye didn’t cause since 808s & Heartbreak or Yeezus. Kanye was no longer just controversial as a character; he was also back to being appealing as an artist. Critics and listeners started rushing into a race to who had an opinion – good or bad – on the work first; just a simple proof of Kanye’s newfound musical relevancy, along with the fact that on this album guest artists like Fivio Foreign on Off The Grid, Lil Durk on Jonah or Andre 3000 (on Life Of The Party, an unfortunately scrapped track) were outdoing themselves trying to give him the best verse they could, reminding of what Rick Ross or Nicki Minaj did back in the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy days.
Musically, Donda is like a breath of fresh air in the stale and uninspired music scene of today’s mainstream. It’s so necessary to be confused after the first listen. It’s so refreshing to need more than two listens to have an opinion. It’s so stimulating to still find new aspects of a track after a month that you’re listening to it. Plus, in an era where hits are built aiming towards 9-year-old kids on Tik Tok, putting a 9-year-old girl to play a breathtaking piano solo on Come to Life, one of the album’s highest peaks, sounds almost revolutionary.
Sure, the album has his flaws: it has too many tracks, it may sound all over the place, the choice of silencing curse words is respectable but can ruin the listening experience. But still, the cons are less than the pros. Kanye is finally starting to blend his newfound religion and spirituality into “secular” mainstream Hip Hop. In Donda, he is cocky as the “old Kanye” but also theological as the new one. After Jesus Is King, he has maybe now found the formula to put gospel themes inside a record, without turning it into a gospel album per se. It may not sound cohesive waving from a stadium anthem like Jail, to a drill track like Off The Grid, to uplifting and positive songs like 24, No Child Left Behind, Come to Life, Pure Souls, but it represents the complexity and the layers of who is Kanye West today, and that’s why Donda is probably the best album Kanye West could give us in 2021.
With Donda, Kanye may have ended an arch of grueling chaos that started around 2018, finding the perfect balance between being in the spotlight for his music, his character and pushing cultural boundaries.
Watching you “joystick the culture” makes us all proud. Continue to do things your way – said Rap icon and frequent Kanye West collaborator Pusha T on Instagram, the day of Donda release. We all agree.