Some of my most cherished memories in life are attached to when I experienced certain pieces of art for the first time. Seeing Spider-Man Homecoming for the first time in a theater full of the overwhelming love of dozens of new and old friends. Playing Shadow of Colossus in a Walmart gaming chair right after marathoning through Modern Warfare 3 on Christmas night and finally having its obtuse design click with me. Being introduced to Kendrick Lamar through Good Kid, Maad City while riding home from a terribly awkward date with a girl who was completely oblivious to how infatuated I was with her. And when it comes to Donda, I also have a vivid memory of my first impression of it.

I went to Kanye West’s second listening party here in Atlanta, GA, and it was both the first big event I’ve been to in years and the most bizarre. None of the songs were actually performed, I had seats that were so far up that it was hard to actually see Ye at times. And the show was even over an hour late to get started. But once it did finally begin, it was an odd, yet mesmerizing experience. Every song had a refreshingly rich sound that felt way grander than much of his work on Jesus is King and ye. In fact, it felt like a perfect blend of the religious imagery he deployed on Jesus is King and the lyricism and instrumentation of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. He stopped being so sheepish with features, with mainstays like Jay Z returning and unexpected collaborators like Westside Gunn and The LOX. It was unlike anything Ye has ever done, but it was such a pleasant return to form that reminded me why I became a Kanye West fan way back when I purchased my first physical CD: Graduation.

But then, over the next few days, I was reminded why being a Kanye West fan has, especially in the last few years, been so frustrating and exhausting. And this same attribute is what drags the album down from its several moments of perfection. But before we really get into that, it’s only appropriate that I discuss the actual music itself first, right?

Credit: BFA/Yeezy/New York Times

The album opens with nearly a minute of out-of-rhythm chanting of Donda, the name of Kanye’s late mother. This seems like a very odd yet direct way to introduce the album, but it’s all forgiven in the very next track. Jail is a wonderfully minimalistic and almost inspirational track that is one of my favorites on the LP. The album overall is very spiritual, but this track especially feels like the end of a church sermon when the doors of the church are opened and the choir sings as the reverend invites you to give your life to God. In this analogy, Jay-Z’s verse is the reverend, as his classic flow and confidence puts longtime Ye fans at ease. Lines like “Told him, ‘Stop all of that red cap, we goin’ home” and “This might be the return of The Throne” both tap into our nostalgia but also seem to imply that Kanye is fully off the bullshit that alienated many of his fans in recent years. Well, that’s not fully the case, but we’ll get there soon enough.

The next track, God Breathed, feels like it’s attempting to call back to the style of production he most often used on Yezus, but even so, it comes off as inconsequential. Instrumentally it’s grand, yet sinister, but Ye’s few mediocre bars don’t do much to make this feel like a full track, and this early in the tracklist is a bad place to place an interlude. Vory’s vocals do a lot to make the track go down easier, but overall it’s a forgetful track once you realize the buildup of its imposing beat is only going to end with too many seconds of meandering.

Next is Off the Grid, which is yet another highlight off of the tracklist. Now, as someone who has barely listened to Playboi Carti and hasn’t even heard of Fivio Foreign until now, I’m impressed by how much they both make this track sing, pun intended. Carti’s nearly incoherent opening verse certainly gets me excited and tees Fivio up for an outstanding verse. In fact, I’d go as far as to say Fivio’s verse here steals the show so effectively that it reminds me of Nick Minaj’s famous verse from Monster. But here is the first major self-inflicted wound this album is found. This track was great with Carti and Fivio in the starting roles, but Ye insists on having his own verse at the end of the song. His verse is serviceable, but after the energetic swagger of Fivio, it mellows out that energy until the end of the track seems to slowly roll to a complete stop.

Ye fairs better in the next track, Hurricane. Instead of being tacked on, it feels like he fits in and complements the wonderful vocals of The Weeked and unique voice Lil Baby. In fact, the latter’s more relaxed tone and pronunciation mesh with the regal instrumental very well. Overall, Hurricane is a great track, but nothing about it sticks out enough to make it one of Kanye’s greatest songs of his career.

Credit: BFA/Yeezy/New York Times

Praise God is a solid track as well. Travis Scott sets the mood effectively after Kanye’s intro, but Baby Keem is both the highlight and Achilles heel of this track. I’ll admit, while I have heard of Baby Keem, I didn’t really gain an appreciation for him until listening to his latest track, family ties, with Kendrick Lamar. From there, I’ve come to appreciate his unique voice and solid lyricism. He brings both to this track, but similar to Fivio Foreign on Off the Grid, it seems that Ye just gave Keem half the track to just go off on. Baby Keem definitely snaps for most of it, but about 30% of his verse feels like repetitious filler and nearly failed attempts to keep the hype up while waiting for his next stream of coherent thoughts. The grandiose production does a lot to help him and all of the artists on this track, but those moments of filler bring it down from the greatness it could have achieved.

It sticks out more than Jonah at the very least. This next song is a drearily produced track that seems to purposely contrast with the high energy of the tracks bookending it. Vory brings his remarkable vocals once again, and those vocals are the most memorable part of the song. But the diet-Lil Baby that is Lil Durk and Kanye’s merely serviceable verse doesn’t make this track a standout. This song isn’t outright bad, but it definitely feels like a track that could have easily been cut in favor of a mercifully shorter project overall.

Speaking of songs that are just OK, Ok Ok is thankfully more than just OK. It’s similarly dreary but has much more energy despite the more subdued undertones. It sounds like 3 am driveby music, and that mood is brought forward even more effectively by Lil Yatchy’s verse. His incredibly calm delivery goes perfectly with the instrumentation and it’s another excellent verse from the artist after his surprisingly delightful Michigan Boy Boat project from earlier this year. But Kanye’s contribution isn’t as memorable. His thin opening verse feels like it’s there more to hype the Yatchy verse, and he fits better in this track when he keeps himself relegated to the chorus. And even Rooga’s verse at the end isn’t anything more than adequate. He also just sounds like another Lil Baby copy, and therefore doesn’t add any additional personality to the track.

Next is Junya, an unsubstantial, yet fun, yet brief track. It’s little more than Kanye and Playboi Carti going back and forth with choppy and repetitive verses. But the instrumental salvages this song. It sounds like a trap moshpit at a vampire funeral, so with that context, the unremarkable bars of Ye and Carti are acceptable. Thankfully, Ye had enough sense to make this one of the shorter tracks on the album, because if they kept it up for even another minute, they likely wouldn’t be able to sustain that vibe much longer.

Now, if I wanted to be cynical, I could say how much I see right through the next track, Believe What I Say, and talk about how it’s the use of a Lauren Hill sample and the more dance-y drums of 808s and Heartbreak seem specifically engineered to be a radio hit. But the optimist in me just loves Lauren Hill, and I can also admit that I had Heartless on repeat back when my PSP was my music player of choice. So, I like the track, but it has to hit me in a very specific mood for me to admit it. But I can definitively say nearly no other song on the album sounds like this and its inclusion is a refreshing surprise. If only Ye had the pull that Nas does because a full Lauren Hill feature would have made this track an instant classic.

24 is yet another track that could have easily been sacrificed for the sake of a shorter album. I can imagine Kanye wanting to give the Sunday Service Choir a track to themselves, and it does have a similar open-the-doors-of-the-church vibe as Jail, albeit way more directly. But there’s so much Jesus on the album already that having what is pretty much just a gospel song feels like it’s drowning the album in it. Like, we get it, you like God. Even as a Christian myself, if I really wanted to wallow in the spirit for a minute, I’d turn to Mary Mary, Kirk Franklin, or even Sounds of Blackness to fulfill that need before I turn to the guy I fell in love with for rapping about Gold Diggers.

Credit: Kanye West

Next is Remote Control, and, maybe ironically considering its placement, it sounds like it wouldn’t be out of place in any strip club in Atlanta. Its slow and seductive beat seems specifically designed to wind your hips to, and the addition of Young Thug on the track feels like even more justification to throw it on at Magic City. But, as is, the track feels like it’s leading to a grand finale but Thugger’s verse alone doesn’t have the amount of payoff I would like. It’s a middling song, but hey, at least you got a weird Dunkey reference.

Moon is yet another track that easily could have been cut. I know everyone loves Kid Cudi swooning over mellow beats. And Don Toliver, an artist I only know of from Eminem’s Music to be Murdered By last year, brings some truly angelic vocals to the track. But this sounds like the second half of a song rather than something that stands on its own. I would have tied this to the back half of a more hype track, like Off the Grid, to have it contrast rather than it being a sleepy, yet compelling, interlude on an already overly long LP.

But thankfully we are back to the highlights with Heaven and Hell. This is one of the best tracks on the entire album, and it is easily the strongest performance from Kanye on the entire project. With support from his most cinematic instrumentation on here, he carries this song with one passionate verse. This is the most I’ve leaned forward while listening to the album, and the ride he takes us on feels like that of a villain’s ballad in a Disney movie, like Be Prepared song in The Lion King. This is the most charisma and sheer musical talent he displays on the album, in my opinion, and I could have easily taken another verse on the track. Despite understanding how personal this song is, I even could easily hear Pusha T on this track, whose presence is missed on this project, especially on the following track.

Donda is less of a track and more of an interlude, and one that feels vital if only to justify the album’s title. This is, of course, Donda herself giving us a few words. But what I find interesting about these words is that they don’t pass the Bechdel test at all. She’s talking about her son, the very man who made this album, and how much she cherishes him and her relationship with him. I’m sure she loved Kanye, and would gladly talk about him. But using this specific clip of audio feels like it’s there to stroke Kanye’s ego more than to pay homage to the woman that was Donda West. It leads me to question, why is this album even called Donda? It’s not really about her life or interests, nor is it really much from her perspective. Maybe, with its heavy religious imagery and gospel sound, it’s attempting to sound like the style of the music she enjoyed. But Kanye already made a whole ass gospel album a few years ago with Jesus is King, so that feels more motivated by his wishes than her’s. Hell, Donda herself is the only female voice on the album with exception of one woman used twice on this album, a move that is particularly…impressive in 2021. None of the tracks on this album ever really feel like they are tying back to Donda in any real way, and while several of these songs are great, it really muddies whatever overall theme or message this project is intended to have.

Credit: Philey Sanneh. Courtesy of DONDA

Maybe this album’s purpose is to keep her spirit alive, which leads to the next track, Keep My Spirit Alive. This song has the most surprising features on the entire album in the form of Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine. Now I’ve fallen in love with the music of these two back when Grizelda was making waves after being signed to Shady Records. I associate them with some of the grimmest music in hip hop. Like sometimes I don’t even feel safe when listening to them. So, to hear them on such an aggressively religious album is not only delightfully jarring but kind of hilarious. Like hearing the heavenly vocals of KayCyy (whom, I can’t stress enough, is wonderful on this track) being followed up by a Westside Gunn bar about thanking God his gun didn’t jam is just unavoidably comical. But overall, this track is another highlight. It is the most direct clash of Kanye’s religious tone and the grittiness of hip hop as a genre on the whole record, and for that reason, it might be my favorite of the main tracks. One of the only critiques of it is that Royce Da 5’9″, once of my favorite rappers, can only be heard in the background rather than getting a proper verse.

Jesus Lord is another highlight, but with a massive caveat. The beat, much like Junya, blends heavy 808s, bass, and church organs to great effect. But here it’s much more ambient rather than hype, and the subdued performance from Ye and, eventually, Jay Electronica add to that more solemn ambiance. Kanye’s verse starts solidly paints a fairly vivid picture of gang life in Chicago, and it sets a nice backdrop for the Larry Hoover Jr. speech near the end of the track. But his verse begins to meander as it goes on, and the tight flow and intricate bars that follow from Jay Electronica give the track a much-needed second wind. Now, I said this track was a highlight, and it is really good. But the alternate cut of this song is even better. Well get there soon enough, but just wanna plant this seed for now.

Next is New Again, a track that feels like it’s building up to something much like Heaven and Hell. But instead, it just runs its tires without really going anywhere. It’s a pleasant enough song, and Kanye’s verse here is solid, but it feels like the first draft in desperate need of another verse or at least extra layers of instrumentation. But one thing that is here is background vocals courtesy of Chris Brown. This is not a collab I’m happy with, as, since his attempt at redemption after him beating Rhiana all those years ago, he’s backslid repeatedly and has abused both drugs and other women with regularity. This performance from Brown isn’t even strong enough for me to appreciate despite his personal issues, like his feature on Waves from The Life of Pablo. But his inclusion here is still only one of the least egregious, and we’ll get to the others later.

Tell the Vision is another interlude-esque track, but it’s not nearly as important as Donda. It feels like just an excuse to say that Kanye got a Pop Smoke feature on the album, despite the fact, thanks to really poor mixing, this verse is very clearly lifted from a different song entirely. It’s not like he could have gotten Pop in the booth to record a clean verse, rest his soul, but giving him this really odd piano to rap over for a whole track is just bizarre. Pop Smoke could have slotted in naturally, but this addition is so jarring that I can’t help but feel like the album would be better overall without it.

Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Universal Music Group

Lord I Need You might as well be renamed to Kim, I Need You, because this is the most direct discussion of his relationship, or lack thereof, with Kim Kardashian he has on this entire album. It’s cool to have him open up, but the issues discussed are nothing new. Oh, so they don’t have as much sex as they used to? Oh, so he just needed space from her? All that’s fine, but it doesn’t break new ground as a song. Maybe he should just save these comments for the marriage counselor I hope they’ll soon be seeing. Instrumentally, the song sounds pretty bare as well, and it leaves me thinking that, while the track might be personal enough to leave on the album, it would easily be near the bottom of my ranking as far as I’m concerned.

Next, we have Pure Souls, which is almost one of the greatest songs in Kanye’s career, let alone on. Donda. Roddy Rich makes this song, well, sing with his youthfully optimistic vocals on the chorus and his verse. The song instrumentally has big “end credits” energy. Like, this is the kind of song that plays at the end of a 2004 street drama and they show freeze frames of each character to show what they got up to after the movie concluded. Much like Jail at the start of the album, it feels like this track is marking a new beginning for Kanye after his turbulent recent past. Kanye’s verse doesn’t even bring down the track despite some repetitive bars near the end. This track would be perfect if the instrumental was able to ride out the last few moments, but that is sadly not the case, as the last roughly 40% is taken up by an abrupt Shenseea outro. It’s not her fault that this second half is unsatisfying, as her voice is incredible, but the beat switch to something much more somber and minimalistic ruins the optimistic feeling of the first half. The vibes of the track go from wedding to wake for seemingly no reason, and if not for that switch, it would easily be the best track on the album.

Then we have Come to Life, and it might actually be the worse track on the entire album. It’s attempting to hit the same optimistic tone as Pure Souls, but it comes off as corny more than genuinely hopeful. Instrumentally, it sounds like a much more minimalistic Don’t Stop Believin’, which should tell you everything you need to know. This song isn’t even as good as that one, because the incredibly repetitive flow from Kanye takes up the majority of the song. There just isn’t enough here to latch onto. Instead, the song hopes that you simply catch its vibe through just the sounds of praise in the background and the simple piano playing near the end. It just falls flat and comes off as Kanye almost parodying himself.

No Child Helf Behind hits similarly. It’s not as straight-up bad as Come to Life, but there is similarly little to cling onto emotionally. It does play as more of an interlude, but we’ve already ruined the potentially perfect ending to the album several minutes ago with the beat switch in Pure Souls, so why not throw in some more filler. Vory’s vocals are still great here, but this track is maybe the 4th or 5th track that could be removed without anything of value being lost from the album.

Credit: Brian Prahl/MEGA

Now, that’s the end of the album. At nearly 90 minutes and with several songs that could easily be cut, the album is already bloated. And with the inclusion of Chris Brown, the feature list is already stained, especially with the only female feature being used incredibly poorly. But in true Kanye fashion, he doesn’t stop there, as he’s included alternate versions of 4 tracks. They are not getting a full paragraph each, but their inclusion hints at what makes the album overall so frustrating.

Starting from the end this time, Jesus Lord P2 is much better than the original. The additional verses from The LOX give this the feel of the classic possie tracks Ye used to make, like Mercy and Monster. Plus, the more general bars about street life tie better into both Kanye’s refrain that “we done seen a lot of things” and that Larry Hoover Jr. speech. Ok Ok P2 drops Yatchy’s incredible verse to add a jarring verse from Shenseea once again. I still don’t think it’s her fault, as her verse does deliver a jolt of energy that I think is refreshing, but on a track that felt as intentionally low-key as Ok Ok, it feels out of place. Then Junya P2 felt entirely unnecessary. The added verse from Ty Dolla $ign doesn’t add much to the song and even works against the hype vibe of the original a bit. But hey, I’ve never really loved Dolla $ign much on any track, so perhaps I’m just biased.

And finally, Jail P2 is not as hard to listen to as Come to Life, but on paper, it’s easily the objectively worst track on the album. Putting Kanye, DaBaby, and Maralyn Manson all on one track is just stupid enough to have me interested, but the reason why they’re all on the same track is what makes it so bad. Kanye sees himself as a man of God, despite his past contradicting that. So, he also sees himself as a potential rehabilitator since he stands for a righteous cause. Well, putting a proud and remorseless homophobe and a repeated sexual assaulter of over a dozen women on a track isn’t doing the rehabilitation he thinks it is.

Now, I can understand his logic. Even as a kid, I thought the portrayal of the pastor in Madea Goes to Jail was the closest to actually being Christ-like. In that movie, Ellen, played by Viola Davis would spend her nights not at church, but on the streets, offering contraception, hygiene products, and other aid to the ladies of the night, all without any judgment and with an understanding of what they are going through. Now, the portrayal of sex work in Tyler Perry movies aside, I always loved the idea of giving such sympathy and judge-free understanding to those on the edges of society, and it really lead me to a general goal of treating everyone with kindness with very few caveats. Kanye thinks he’s doing something similar here with this song, but there’s no atonement here for these men. He’s not trying to even minimize the harm they do to others or themselves, he’s just associating them with himself to seem more righteous by comparison.

I mean, take DaBaby’s verse. He not only doubles down on the fact he didn’t say anything that bad with his “I said one thing they ain’t like, threw me out like they ain’t care for me” line but also gaslights the audience by implying that deplatofriming him makes us responsible for the quality of life of his daughter. His verse is well rapped, and DaBaby’s infectious flow is in full effect here, but the lyrical contents don’t pass the most basic of smell tests, nor does the fast flow mesh well with the much slower instrumentation. And that’s without even mentioning Manson, whose background vocals add nothing but a jarring edge to the initially hopeful vibe of the original track.

Credit: Getty (2007)

And really, Jail P2 shows most nakedly my biggest issue with this album, it just has Kanye’s grubby fingerprints all over it in both the best and worst ways. For every excellent track on here, there’s another one that is completely forgettable, yet it’s left on likely because that was Ye’s “creative vision”. But how solid is that vision when 4 of the tracks here are just alternate versions of earlier tracks? How solid is that vision when most of those alternate tracks are outright worse than the originals? And also, how solid is that vision when this is the 5th version of this entire album that the public has gotten?

I opened this review talking about how much I cherish my first impressions with art, and in the case of Donda, I had the potential to have one of the strongest first impressions of any album I’ve ever heard. But I was robbed of that initial impression with the following listening party in Chicago, and the version of the album played there was worse by every comparison. This final version of the album reverts most of those changes, but for those tracks that remain changed, I’ll always mourn the original version. I have a similar relationship with The Life of Pablo. The pre-patch (wild I’m using that terminology for a rap album) version is the first one I acquired, and I listened to it for several months before the official version finally hit all streaming platforms. Now my access to that original version is lost, and the differences in the current version stick out like a sore thumb. This is what the “imma fix wolves” mindset leaves too, folks like me who mourn for a piece of art that no longer exists rather than what the artist intended to put out into the world.

That first impression I had with Donda eroded so much that, when the album finally just spat itself out unceremoniously, I listened to it not with excitement, but with exhaustion. And with the follow-up post from Ye that the album was apparently released without his consent, which might explain the fact this album is censored, I worry his antics are potentially continuing after the album is already out.

I think Donda is a good album, a great album even. But its quality isn’t high enough to make all of the bullshit of the last few weeks of anticipation worth it. Its themes don’t justify being named after West’s late mother. And all of its flaws feel so intrinsically tied to Kanye West’s massive ego. It’s that ego that lead him to refuse to cut songs and verses that don’t match the vibe of the album. And it’s that ego that lead him to lead his fans on with fake release dates for weeks. It’s that same ego that made him think it’s OK to work with several abusers and a homophobe. It’s that ego that lead him to get in a petty beef with regular collaborator, Drake. And it’s that ego that lead him to use a rare, and incredibly intimate Andre 3000 verse as cannon fodder in this childish war instead of using it to replace one of the many lackluster cuts on his actual album!

If someone is reading this review several decades in the future, when all of the news surrounding this album is long buried, then I can say this album is objectively good with very few exceptions. But considering the context around it, I just can’t give this as high of a mark as I would like to. I just wish Kanye wasn’t so talented when he wasn’t on his bullshit, or just that he was never on his bullshit in the first place.

Final Grade: