Donda by Kanye West: Album Review

Kanye West enters Mercedes-Benz stadium ahead of his second Donda listening party.

Overview: 

Kanye West released his tenth studio album, Donda, early Sunday morning. The long-awaited album, which missed a total of four different release dates over more than a year, went through approval issues at the last minute which caused it to be delayed to Sunday morning. It was intended to release after West’s third listening party for the album, which took place at Soldier Field in Chicago on Thursday, August 26. West has since claimed that his record label, Universal Music Group, released the album without his permission. As such, it remains to be seen if the album will continue to see updates in the coming days. 

The listening party experience played a pivotal role in the eventual release of the album. Taking place across the month of August, West held three different listening parties that gradually increased in their complexity and artistry, and as they improved the album did with as well. 

These listening parties offered a unique look into how an album comes together. The first, held in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, presented an album that was obviously unfinished but brimming with potential. Due to a lack of communication from West himself, many fans were confused and annoyed that he was going to release an obviously unfinished work. This began the most confusing, though admittedly entertaining, album rollout that has likely ever been undertaken by a mainstream artist. 

Two more listening parties followed, each followed by disappointment after more missed release dates and new theories as to the strange behaviors of West, which included an over 24-hour livestream of the room in Mercedes-Benz Stadium where he had taken up residence. 

While the version of Donda that is currently released may not be the finished product – West famously continued to edit The Life of Pablo after its initial release on streaming services in 2016 ­– it is, at this point, finished enough to provide a valid review of. 

The first thing of note about this album is that it is long – like, really, really long. Coming in at an hour and 48 minutes, it is West’s longest project and is longer than his previous three albums combined. The length, however, is helped quite a bit by the fact that West included 4 bonus tracks, which are alternative versions of songs that are already in the main album: “Jail”, “Ok Ok”, “Junya” and “Jesus Lord.” Without these tracks, the album is a more manageable, but still long, hour and 25 minutes.

First, I’d like to address my overall issues with the album, since there are only a couple. 

The largest complaint I, and many others, currently have with the album overall is that the only version that is currently released is a censored version of the album. This is somewhat unsurprising from the perspective of West’s religious views. However, the explicit version of the album was played at each listening party, and the censorship of the finished product diminishes the artistic expression of many of the songs on the album. “Off the Grid,” which featured some of the best feature verses on the album at the listening parties from Fivio Foreign and Playboi Carti, is particularly dragged down by the censorship.

One smaller overall complaint is that while the mixing on the final version of the album is overall great, thanks to West’s longtime collaborator Mike Dean, there are certain tracks, like “Hurricane” and “24,” that sound a bit off, and not in an intentional way. If West is planning on making any tweaks to the album we hear on streaming services, fixing the mixes for these tracks will hopefully be one of them. 

Finally, the lack of album art for Donda is a bit disappointing given the wide variety of art that has been associated with this album and with each of the release parties. Any one of them, whether the original July 2020 art, the painting by artist Louise Bourgeois for the first listening event, the picture of his mother’s home West posted on Instagram or even a picture of West engulfed in flames from the third listening event would have served as fantastic album covers. The all-black cover is a confusing artistic choice for the album, and potentially a missed opportunity. 

It must also be said that while the addition of Chris Brown is a great choice artistically, the ethics of working with an unapologetic abusive partner are, at best, questionable. Brown is unfortunately not the only artist on Donda with allegations like this, as West also included Don Toliver, Marilyn Manson and Dababy, all of whom have faced various charges including sexual assault or aggravated assault. The art has always come first for West, but even most of his fans, let alone critics, have called the inclusion of these artists into question, particularly on an album meant to honor his late mother. The question of separation of art and artist is inescapable as artists have always led troubled lives, and West is an outspoken critic of our society’s cancel culture. However, cancellation of someone who has already apologized for a comment and cancellation of a serial sexual assaulter, like Marilyn Manson, are entirely different things, and West seems to have missed this nuance.

That ends my complaints, which in my opinion are fairly minor compared to my praise for it. 

From an overall perspective, Donda approaches magnum-opus territory for West, which is an impressive feat for an artist whose My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was ranked the best album of the 2010s by both Rolling Stone and Billboard. With only one notable exception, each track adds a meaningful contribution to an album which is intended to honor West’s late mother, Dr. Donda West, who tragically passed away in 2007. 

The album is in many ways the culmination of West’s already illustrious career. Each of his past albums are reflected on Donda to absolutely great effect and are often combined to make an entirely new sound. West demonstrates the best of his rap ability in performances that both sound at home in our current era and as timeless as those featured on The College Dropout. His singing ability is the best it has ever been on Donda, even surpassing his performance on his single “Only One,” which is also about his late mother. 

Donda only features three tracks that I find significant flaws in, which is an impressive feat for an album that consists of 23 songs, 27 including its bonus tracks. This prevents the album from being perfect, but even West’s aforementioned album of the decade has flaws and tracks that are generally unpopular. Donda, in my opinion, is West’s best album of his “New Kanye” era, which is an impressive feat in an era which includes The Life of Pablo. This album was meant to honor West’s mother, and it most certainly accomplishes this goal. 

My favorite tracks are “Come to Life,” “Jesus Lord” and “Jail,” and my least favorite are “Tell The Vision,” “Remote Control” and “Keep My Spirit Alive.”

Donda is easily a 9/10, no matter what Pitchfork says. Rest In Peace, Dr. Donda West.

Track by Track Review:

The album begins on a bit of an odd note with “Donda Chant,” which is simply a repetition of the album’s title with no music in the background. While this will likely be skipped by most fans, I believe it’s an important grounding point for the album, and a reminder of the album’s intent. The recitation sounds a bit like a heartbeat and is likely intended to serve as a reminder that Donda will always remain in Kanye’s heart. 

“Jail” can be considered the effective intro track to the album, and it is easily one of Donda’s best. Featuring a heavy rock influence, West shines on this track with vocals that are reminiscent of many of the biggest 70s and 80s rock bands. The track is a celebration of the best of West’s newfound single life following his divorce with Kim Kardashian. It features Jay-Z, marking the first time the two have worked together since the release of their collab album, Watch the Throne, in 2011. Jay-Z and West have had numerous fallings-out, and West’s erratic public behavior in the years following WTT often hurt his relationship with Jay-Z. The pair seem to have made amends to the benefit of rap fans in general, as “Jail” is one of the album’s highest points. The song is currently expected to debut at #1 in the Billboard Hot 100. 

“God Breathed” is a stylistic extension of West’s 2013 album Yeezus, featuring brutal and industrial production, contrasted by the hauntingly beautiful vocals of Vory, an unknown artist prior to the release of Donda. The track is the first of many on the album that makes use of choir vocals, a strong improvement of the Gospel inspiration that West used to mixed results on Jesus is King. The song features the aggressively delivered, repetitive chorus, “I know God breathed on this,” which is a short explanation of the theme of the song. West raps about how God has blessed his career and that he has looked to God for inspiration in his music. In general, religion is a very strong theme on Donda, and with this track as the first evidence, is done in a significantly more compelling manner than on Jesus is King

“Off the Grid,” featuring Fivio Foreign and Playboi Carti, is the most intense song on the album. Each artist delivers their verse with a rapid drill inspired flow. Playboi Carti sticks to the rock inspired vocals that were used to much success on his 2020 album Whole Lotta Red, Fivio Foreign delivers what could easily be argued as the best feature on the album and West’s own verse is one of his best on the album. This album generally sees very diverse flows and performances from West himself, and his flow over the drill beat on “Off the Grid” is no exception. 

“Hurricane” has had its own mythos since the days of West’s infamously unreleased 2019 project, Yandhi. The track has existed in leaked form in so many different iterations and remixes that it could easily have an album to itself. Finally, however, West fans everywhere have gotten a final version of the song, and the addition of a chorus from The Weeknd was the icing on the cake. Utilizing choir vocals to back up The Weeknd, deep synths over much of the track and absolutely fantastic verses from Lil Baby and West, this track cannot be described as anything short of beautiful. 

“Praise God” is the first of two tracks on Donda that make use of samples of Dr. Donda West herself. West’s mother was the chairwoman of the English department at Chicago State University and had a manner of speaking that was utterly riveting in life. West samples his mother excellently on this track, opening with her recitation of the poem “Speech to the Young: Speech to the Progress-Toward” by Gwendolyn Brooks. He continues to sample her saying, “Into the night,” throughout his own verse and Travis Scott’s. Scott floats over West’s production on this song, and Baby Keem delivers a verse that, while overstaying its welcome, holds up well against the rap titans he joins on the track. 

“Jonah” is the second of three songs that features Vory’s vocals, and once again his singing does not miss on this track. Opening the track with a beautiful chorus, his performance of his verse doesn’t quite reach the same heights but is lyrically sound and by no means brings the track down. His verse, as well as those of Lil Durk and West that follow him, speaks on the difficulty of finding true friends once you come into money and fame, as well as the difficulty of losing a significant other, something West recently dealt with. The song is an excellent emotional showing for all three artists. 

West’s verse and flow on “Ok Ok” sound different from anything he has done in his previous music, and it is without a doubt to the benefit of the track. West’s performances on Donda in general show that even at age 44, the self-proclaimed G.O.A.T. is still innovating and growing in his musical ability. The track features quite a bit of flexing from West, who raps about cutting his friends into his wealth while other rappers leave theirs behind, and as mentioned before, declaring himself the G.O.A.T. While I am generally not a fan of Lil Yachty’s music, he gave his verse everything he had for a chance to work with a hip-hop legend, and the effort shows. Neither Lil Yachty or the track’s other feature, Rooga, have the best features on this album, but as stacked with great features as Donda is, there isn’t much shame in that, and each delivered a decent performance.  

“Junya” features Donda’s second verse from Playboi Carti. While Carti isn’t quite as good as on “Off the Grid,” he delivers another excellent feature, which is no shock to anyone who has been paying attention to his career thus far. Featuring a light and quick organ melody over a muddy bassline, the production on this track provides both West and Carti with a track they can have some fun with. Neither artist takes themselves too seriously on this one, and while the track certainly isn’t the album’s best, it provides a fun palate cleanser that takes nothing away from the otherwise high levels of artistry on Donda.

“Believe What I Say” is the most fun track on the album, a chorus that West employs his own singing for the first time on the album. West himself has admitted that his singing ability has never been the best, and throughout his career he has rarely done much singing on his own tracks, instead using vocals from the likes of The Weeknd, Rihanna or Chris Martin. On Donda, however, West sings quite a bit and has improved immensely from his previous singing performances. The track features a sample from Lauryn Hill, who was a frequent collaborator of West’s in his early career and is known as one of the most influential artists of the 2000s. West’s verse is one of his best on the album, featuring lyrics discussing the criticism he receives for his often-controversial public comments in a verse that has a bit more depth than the light and swinging production behind him might suggest. 

“24” is far and away the most Gospel inspired track on the album and will certainly remind fans of Jesus is King. Featuring the vocals of West’s famous Sunday Service Choir and an organ that would sound at home at an actual Sunday service, the song is a celebration of West’s Christian faith. The verses of the song consist mostly of optimistic repeated lines like, “We’re gonna be okay,” and “God’s not finished.” The track would have annoyed me on Jesus is King as it lacks depth like many of the tracks on that project. However, surrounded by the much more sober and thought-out depictions of West’s faith on Donda, the track works very well as one of many aspects of his faith journey. 

“Remote Control” is one of my least favorite tracks on Donda, though admittedly this is partially because I am comparing it to the version played at the album’s second listening party in Atlanta. The released version of the song is okay, but the one played in Atlanta featuring a tremendous verse from Kid Cudi that is not present here, vocals from Young Thug that lacked the strange effect West added and without the absolutely ridiculous and pointless sample of “The Globglogabgalab,” (you read that correctly), is simply miles better than the released version. The song was great, and while the released version isn’t unlistenable it is one of the lower points on the album, especially compared with what could have been.

“Moon,” on the other hand, is absolutely beautiful and, as its title might suggest, sounds nothing short of other-worldly. Don Toliver’s soprano, made famous by his performances on Travis Scott’s 2018 project Astroworld, sounds absolutely perfect for this track, and contrasts gorgeously with Kid Cudi’s iconic deep humming and bass vocals. West only comes in towards the end of the track, and even then only on a few lines, but his contribution continues the trend of vocals that make you feel like you’re floating while listening to “Moon.”

“Heaven and Hell” is a track I still do not know how I feel about. Like “Remote Control,” the track was changed quite a bit from its listening party debut, but unlike that song it was not all for the worse. For one, West actually finished writing his verse, which ended up being one of his hardest deliveries on the album, rivaled only by “Off the Grid.” The drop on the track is the one area that I am still questioning. The original drop featured a very deep and intense choir vocal, which West seems to have pitched up for the actual released version of the song. The drop is still tremendous, but I can’t help but feel that it blends a little too much with the new sample on the song, taking away from the intensity of the track. 

“Donda” is a bitter-sweet track for me. When West debuted this song in Atlanta, I was moved to tears by absolutely every facet of it. The clip of Dr. Donda West’s speech at an event celebrating the life of poet Gwendolyn Brooks, but also her son Kanye West and the impact he has had on a generation, is something I am appreciative of as someone whose life has been impacted by West’s music. West’s lightly autotuned vocals in the continued buildup that follows, backed by the ethereal whisper notes of Stalone, are nothing short of perfect. This track takes its time to build up, and continues into powerful Gospel vocals by Tony Williams, backed by the Sunday Service Choir. As I first listened to the released version, I thought my headphones had died following this point. Unfortunately, I was incorrect. For some reason, West cut what had been one of the most emotionally charged verses on the album, consisting of himself and Pusha T trading bars about West bringing church to stadiums and dealing with an emotional public meltdown in South Carolina regarding the decision over whether to abort his daughter, North. The verse was real, raw and overwhelmingly powerful. “Donda” is still a beautiful track as it is, and the one most people are hearing for the first time is still incredible. The experience for me, however, was saddened by the lack of what I considered to be a top 3 verse on the album. 

“Keep My Spirit Alive” is another overtly religious track, and, in my opinion, one of the more lackluster on the album. I’m convinced that this take is the byproduct of my Gen-Z ears, because older listeners seem to love the vocals of West’s new prodigy KayCyy and the verses of Westside Gunn, Conway the Machine and Royce da 5’9”. The song is paced very slowly, relying on a simple, low tempo drum beat that is certainly reminiscent of the older days of hip-hop. The track is by no means bad, and the performance by each artist adds something to it. That being said, much of the enjoyment of it will be lost on listeners who, like myself, didn’t grow up with the features on this track or even any stylistic equivalents. This being said, from an objective standpoint this track is an important one on the album, and with strong resemblance to The College Dropout, further underscores the album as a culmination of every single other body of work West has created through his over 20-year career as an artist. 

“Jesus Lord,” on the other hand, is a track that hip-hop old-heads and fans of “New Kanye” alike will enjoy side by side. The riser intro to the song into the explosion of the beat, which is an excellent combination of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy style maximalist production and the best of Jesus is King’s Gospel influence, is the best possible intro for what the track is lyrically. West’s verse is his most introspective and emotional since “Runaway” and still manages to bring up societal and religious issues that are bigger than himself. Jay Electronica delivers one of the better features of the album, adding to the racial commentary on the song and critiquing the damage that the United States government has done abroad and to its own people. The track is interspersed with West singing the bridge with the Sunday Service Choir, “Tell me if you know someone that needs Jesus,” reminding his audience of his belief that these societal wrongs and personal turmoil that he sees and feels can only be helped through Jesus. The song’s performance and lyricism are astounding. The track is West’s best demonstration of the depth of his faith to date, and a relieving political return to form after his time touting former President Trump. The nearly nine-minute song closes with a voicemail left for West by Larry Hoover Jr., who thanks West for his help in bringing the fight to release his father from prison to the White House. The addition of this voicemail grounds the song in real life and is perhaps included to remind the audience that despite his failings and regrettable statements, West has continually tried to work towards racial justice in the United States and has been able to cause positive changes despite accusations of the opposite. This doesn’t excuse his actions, but it does add something to a conversation that, to this point, has been largely one-sided. 

“New Again” is another palate cleanser for the album, which provides a fun breath of fresh air that reminded me of Graduation in a great way. Following the emotional depth of “Jesus Lord,” the track is another bit of lighthearted fun. West expresses his joy for life, the more enjoyable elements of being single again and feeling joy in repenting for his sins. Chris Brown sings the chorus on this track over “Flashing Lights” style synths which results in a wonderfully grandiose track. 

“Tell The Vision,” to put it lightly, should not be on this album. The inclusion of this track is, in my opinion and in the opinion of just about every listener I have heard or read, an absolute mistake. The track does not feature West’s voice whatsoever, and instead opts for a Pop Smoke verse that has already been released on Pop Smoke’s posthumous album, Faith, which itself features one of the worst Kanye West features I have ever heard. The issue is not with Pop Smoke, however, but rather that the vocals sound like they were recorded on a Samsung Smart Fridge and are placed over pounding, droning piano that would at best be considered mediocre if the verse didn’t sound so atrocious. If West’s intention was to honor the late rapper, he failed to do so. The inclusion of this track is a confusing and unfortunate stain on an album that is otherwise in the #1 album discussion for West. The track doesn’t disqualify Donda from that conversation, but it certainly hurts the argument. 

“Lord I Need You” is another track that features West’s singing ability quite well. Produced by industry legend Wheezy, who has worked with many of modern rap’s best artists, this track is a personal and intimate look into West and Kim Kardashian’s divorce and some of the more painful elements of what West has gone through as a result. The track is very emotional and can be considered the end-of-relationship version of Yeezus’s “Bound 2,” an equally intimate and at times beautifully childish song focusing on the beginning of West and Kardashian’s relationship. “Lord I Need You” is the spiritual successor to that song and is yet another great addition to the emotional powerhouse that is Donda.

“Pure Souls” is an “Old Kanye” performance on a “New Kanye” beat, and this juxtaposition combines for stellar performances by both West and the song’s feature, Roddy Rich. If you’ve only ever heard Roddy Rich on “The Box,” you’ll barely even recognize his performance here. His delivery is an excellent fusion of singing and rapping that works well over the track’s head-bopping beat. West’s verse details his rise from purchasing knock off clothes to owning his own fashion brand, as well as some critiques of counting money as the measure of your career. The track ends with great vocals from Shenseea as the beat cuts back to let her voice take center stage. Shenseea provides the perfect end to this track, repeating one of the themes of the song, “The truth the only thing you get away with.” 

Being a fan of one of the most controversial artists in the mainstream often feels like a full-time job. I am constantly asked why I even like him, whether I support the newest nuclear hot take he’s come up with or if I genuinely think “Lift Yourself” is a good song (I do). “Come to Life” is the type of song that makes all of this worth it. I once facetiously created a Spotify playlist entitled, “Songs that are as good as Runaway by Kanye West,” and only put “Runaway” on it. That playlist now has two songs, and “Come to Life” has earned that spot. The track is far and away West’s best ever singing performance. His vocals are shockingly beautiful and moved me to tears multiple times throughout the track. The lyrics reflect incredible emotional depth about losing family members to prison, thoughts and dreams fading away, the complexity of emotion felt at the end of a relationship and above all the freedom West has found in turning to God. The track transitions from sadness to freedom over a piano piece performed by Tyler, The Creator that would make Mozart smile. The bulk of the track features a combination of heavenly organ and explosions of synth that have yet to not give me chills when listening to this track. “Come to Life” is pure perfection and can easily be argued to be the best song West has ever released.

“No Child Left Behind” is a tremendous close to this album. The combination of exclusively organ and choir make this track sound like it is being performed by a band of angels. West closed his second Atlanta listening event by floating out of Mercedes-Benz Stadium to this track, and it is easy to see why. If Heaven is real, the trip up will probably sound something like “No Child Left Behind.” Vory’s vocals are once again astounding for his last performance of Donda, and West closes the track out repeating “He’s done miracles on me.” The track takes its time to fade out but only sticks around for as long as necessary. The first time the world heard anything at all from Donda was this track in a Nike commercial featuring track star Sha’Carri Richardson. For me, this was the point at which I realized Donda would be something special, and I am so thankful that West did not disappoint. 

I will not waste your time or mine by detailing each of the bonus tracks since they are simply different versions of “Jail,” “Ok Ok,” “Junya” and “Jesus Lord.” Suffice to say each provides a different listening experience than the original, some for the better and some for the worse. “Junya pt 2” is probably the best of the four in terms of good changes, adding a nice mix of R&B from Ty Dolla $ign.