Yeezy season is once again upon us, and with it bloom a thousand laments for the Kanye of yore. Nostalgia for a supposed earlier golden age of Kanye West has been a nagging piece of his mythos for at least a decade and a half. In the era of this jaundiced memory, he was a less strident and more righteous person who made fundamentally different and, crucially, better music than the Kanye of the present tense. This line became such a tired saw of the aggrieved fan and curmudgeonly critic that Kanye himself satirized it on 2016’s Life of Pablo: “I miss the old Kanye, straight from the go Kanye / Chop up the soul Kanye, set on his goals Kanye. / I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye / The always rude Kanye, spaz in the news Kanye.”
Amid a very public mental health crisis, a religious turn, and a string of hard-to-swallow political gestures that included a sweaty, red-hatted embrace of Trump, an ill-fated run as election spoiler, and the declaration of slavery as a choice made by the enslaved, the ever-peristent “Kanye fell off” theme became something of a public consensus gospel. Though it was often unclear exactly how connected this shift in opinion was to the sound of the music he continued to release, Donda brings the quality of his current output into sharper relief.
Phonte and Big Pooh of the North Carolina rap duo Little Brother addressed such complaints in a wonderfully funny and candid interview recorded around the release of Jesus Is King. “Let me just be very clear, you’re getting the same Kanye, just with a bigger budget and a bunch of Kardashians behind him,” they say, finishing each other’s sentences about meeting Kanye at a 2003 hip-hop conference and their subsequent collaboration. “He is the same dude. Big personality, crazy ideas, off the wall: he was that guy back then. He’s got a lot more money and a bigger platform, but was the same. Nothing Kanye does surprises me. It’s just not ‘Old Kanye, New Kanye’—nah. If you had them early interactions with him, you saw traces of all of that.”
And indeed, upon the release of Donda, his 10th “solo” album, the strong evidence of continuity is there. The incorporation of organ-backed gospel choir on songs like “24,” “Donda,” and “New Again” isn’t a tick he picked up for 2019’s Jesus Is King; it dates back long before his born-again phase, spanning multiple songs across The College Dropout and up through 2016’s “Father Stretch My Hands.” He’s always had a complex about his mix of Saturday night and Sunday morning, too. “They said you could rap about anything except for Jesus,” he rapped—about Jesus—on 2004’s “Jesus Walks.”
Similarly, Donda’s crowded gathering of stadium-bound collaborators echos My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and ye’s destination feature sessions in Hawaii and Wyoming; but this vast communal ethos has been a major part of every Kanye album going back to The College Dropout, the CD booklet of which presented its long contributor list as a multi-page high school yearbook. Kanye got his big break producing songs for Jay-Z, who’s nestled among Donda’s many younger features for the twenty-year reunion (even if upon hearing his opening verse you might wish he weren’t). The World Famous Tony Williams, who has sung on almost all of Kanye’s previous albums, yet again adds his croon to Donda.
The goofy clunkers that everyone loves to hate are once more peppered throughout Kanye’s verses. (Worst/best this time around might be the line “God the Father like Maury.”) There’s a smattering of still-signature chipmunk soul and a few obvious sample flips, including Lauryn Hill’s “Doop Wop” and 20th Century Steel Band's “Heaven and Hell Is on Earth,” all executed with the classic Westian wisdom of not overthinking it. And the string of tinkering-induced delays that defined Donda’s theatrical rollout this summer is nothing new; in fact, it was actually short compared with his first few albums. The College Dropout was delayed three times over five months. “What's weird,” Kanye told the Times in 2005, while tweaking the tardy Late Registration, “is I keep working, but I keep finishing. Every day when I work at the studio, I finish the album. So if someone was like, ‘You've got to turn it in today,’ I would be confident turning it in today. But if they gave me another week, I would work for another week.”
Kanye has always been ridiculous and outspoken, overconfident and wildly insecure—both on and off the mic. An overview of his career reads like a strange loop of rhyming controversies: Not letting Taylor Swift finish is a culturally enshrined scandal, but it was practically a callback to his earlier crashing the stage in protest of Justice winning best video at the MTV Europe Music Awards over him. Even before that, he’d walked out of the American Music Awards after losing Best New Artist to Gretchen Wilson—and as with the Taylor incident’s immortalization on “Famous,” naturally, he rapped about it.
In fact, despite the repeated incantation that opens Donda’s first minute—possibly an auditory smudging to cleanse the air of bad feelings, or a chant to resurrect the proverbial old Kanye (and, of course, the memory of his late mother, Donda West)—maybe not enough has changed. Even by the release of Life of Pablo, in 2016, many had grown tired of the same old Kanye: The affronted underdog scent that was endearing on the come up smells rotten on a mogul. He once rapped, “Can I talk my shit again?” Over the past half-decade, a weary nation groaned in response: Must you?
It’s useful to understand Donda as a late-era release from a legacy artist, attended by many of the pitfalls that come with aging in the spotlight when the cultural center has moved on. Nostalgia and disappointment are the mirepoix in which such albums are cooked, and to compensate for those unsavory flavors and add a major chart boost, they are often cynically overseasoned with features by young stars. Santana’s 1999 album Supernatural—released many years past Carlos Santana’s prime relevance, and while Kanye was at work on the College Dropout—epitomized this approach packing of-the-moment stars such as Dave Matthews, Eagle Eye Cherry, Rob Thomas, and, yes, Lauryn Hill onto an overproduced album with a swollen runtime. Supernatural went #1, and people who had little context for Carlos Santana’s work fell for its hits, like “Smooth.” Sub out Playboi Carti and Baby Keem for Rob Thomas and Dave Matthews, and you have Donda.
Part of what cements Kanye as a legacy artist, out of step with the present era, is his insistence on the album as an event—putting primacy on a format that has been less and less of a feature of pop music since the dawn of Napster and, during the streaming era, all but an anachronism. But the traditionalist mode is a tough sell given that, as a person, Kanye has been devastatingly affected by some of the technological and cultural changes that made his chosen form obsolete.
Kanye has always been self-obsessed—something that was, for better and for worse, long a part of his appeal. But he once told stories peopled by hyper-specific details that demonstrated a now-lost ability to conceive of other minds and build relatable and frustratingly human characters around them. These included not only the “sophomore three years, ain’t picked a career” and the man tracing a throughline of his struggles through the lights in his life, but also the more solipsistic and hare-brained tales on “30 Hours” and “Blood on the Leaves.”
Save for “You'll always be my favorite prom queen, even when we in dad shoes or mom jeans” and “I was one of them weirdos of the pure soul that would go to the flea market to buy fake clothes,” such details on Donda are scarce. Kanye, like so many of us, seems to have been affected by social media’s incentivization of public narcissism and erosion of attention spans. He has become a savant of online attention, intuitively grasping that substance is an impediment to virality. Or maybe, after spending too long in the sheltered isolations of extreme wealth and celebrity, he is unable to conceive of empathy as anything other than an abstraction.
Donda offers several grim examples of a Kanye unable to look up from his phone. He raps about the ‘gram, about the proper response to “wyd,” about being cautioned against tweeting. Even though he can and does fly at 30,000 feet above the trenches of logged-on life and its discourse, he’s apparently still at its mercy.
Such topics could certainly yield good songs, if Kanye could focus long enough to finish one. Over the past decade, he has seemed trapped almost entirely in the present—beholden to no plans, only his of-the-moment whims. He wrote half of Yeezus’s lyrics in two hours; it’s frequently obvious. On ye, he rapped, “I live for now, I don’t know what happen after here.” He continued to “fix wolves” long after Pablo was released. Donda’s “Hurricane” seems to include the reference track of non-linguistic sounds that might have been a placeholder for lyrics that never materialized.
But unlike “Hurricane,” most of Donda is unfinished not in the sense of needing more, but less. Bloat is nothing new for Kanye—lest we forget, 808s and Heartbreak opens with an interminable 6 minutes of “Say You Will.” But Donda’s nearly 2-hour runtime drags on and on without even trying to earn its length. Several songs and a Larry Hoover Jr. speech show up twice, in versions not different enough to justify. Most tracks are short on momentum, and go on for way too long. Rare are the technicolor climaxes that Kanye perfected around the end of the 2000s. Instead, loops that start off hot or beguiling repeat ad infinitum, without much payoff.
At times, it can feel like Kanye is dissolving into the digital ether. Many of his vocals on Donda sound mixed at a distance, and he leans heavily on his collaborators. If Kanye albums are now mostly brand exercise, they may one day no longer need Kanye at all. As with Tom Clancy novels and many famous visual artists, perhaps he will become the kind of musician who releases albums under his name long after he’s stopped making any of the music. Much of Donda sounds like a Kanye-curated playlist—here’s the Playboi Carti song, here’s the Kid Cudi. And it’s not always well-chosen; several of his collaborators only highlight his inability to fit alongside their mode. For every Jay Electronica verse, there’s a shameless Brooklyn drill rip or rat pack gathering of the Griselda guys sounding completely out of place.
Donda, in name at least, is dedicated to Kanye’s mother, though in the listening it’s easy to miss. Older Kanye songs about family, like “Hey Mama” and “Family Business,” were filled with lived-in depictions of family members and touchingly precise images. On the title track, Kanye samples long excerpts of a speech his mother gave shortly before her death, talking about how special he is. The Larry Hoover Jr. monologue, too, continues this Yeezy propaganda. Both are a reminder that Donda is also the name of one of Kanye’s many brands.
The most emblematic song—and, unfortunately, the best—on Donda is “Jail pt 2.” It plays a bit like Kid Cudi’s WZRD doing “FourFiveSeconds” after chugging a Venti Starbucks, while DaBaby runs André 3k sprints around a choir of electric guitars. Its refrain might gesture at the doghouse-courting decision to include both Marilyn Manson and DaBaby on the track shortly after each was exposed for very different kinds of ghastliness. But the song is an uncomfortable miracle of patience, sonic layering, and bad karma: it insists on its callous imprudence and sounds like the fleeting bliss of knowing you’re wrong and doing it anyway. To contend with Kanye—old, new, whatever—has always been to hold these frustrating contradictions aloft, and to sometimes enjoy them. Listening to “Jail pt 2.” feels like being stupid, free, stuck in place—yelling your heart out all alone in a crowded arena. Which is to say, it sounds like Kanye.