Named after his late mother, Donda is the tenth studio album by controversial American music icon Kanye West. Executively produced by himself and featuring a multitude of other prominent artists, including Jay-Z, Travis Scott, and The Weeknd, the highly anticipated album, a fusion of hip hop and gospel music, was released at the end of the summer..
West continues many of the Christian motifs from his previous album Jesus Is King, even completely removing profanity from the album. Deeply introspective yet simultaneously outward-looking, he details issues in his personal life while confronting prevailing problems in American society. While paying homage to the musical elements of his past, he displays his growth as both an artist and a person, more than 17 years after the release of his debut album The College Dropout. It is this complex set of contradictions, reflective of West’s own complexity, that makes Donda the masterpiece that it is.
As the name of the album suggests, Donda is a tribute to West’s deceased mother, whose tragic death in 2007 drastically changed the course of both his music and personal life. Sampling a speech given by his mother just weeks before her passing, he manifests both his profound love and grief.
Indeed the importance of family and other core values to West, influenced by his Christian faith, have a significant influence on the album. In “Never Abandon Your Family,” which begins and ends with a snippet of his mother talking about familial loyalty and unconditional love, he opens up about his ongoing divorce with his wife, Kim Kardashian West. He laments over losing his family, seemingly implying that the divorce was a result of his abandonment of his family.
These overt Christian themes pervade throughout the album. In “24,” West declares that “God’s not finished;” in “Praise God,” he emphatically proclaims that “the devil my opp[onent];” and in “Heaven and Hell,” he asserts that it’s “never too late for Him to save you.” The beautiful singing in “Lord I Need You” and “Keep My Spirit Alive” detail his reliance on his faith throughout his divorce, the death of his mother, and his other struggles.
With these two themes of family and faith converging, West presents “Jesus Lord,” a powerful, lyrically captivating 8 minute and 58 second endeavor featuring Jay Electronica. West delves into his bottomless sorrow following his mother’s death: “And if I talk to Christ, can I bring my mother back to life? And if I die tonight, will I see her in the afterlife?” Following this lamentation, he begins a separate narrative about the negative effects of drugs, unplanned pregnancy, abortion, violent crime, and poverty on an American family. This shift towards social and political issues in America is continued with Electronica’s verse.
In contrast with West’s declarations of God’s grace, Electronica warns of God’s wrath with deft lyricism: “Earthquakes will strike this nation for what Bush did to Rwanda. What the Clintons did to Haiti and Downing Street did to Ghana.” Examining the effects of Western imperialism on Black people, Electronica attacks the two presidents and the British Government. He blames George H. W. Bush’s arms sale and escalation for the Rwandan genocide, Bill and Hillary Clinton’s woeful mismanagement of aid for the devastation in the Haitian Earthquake, and the United Kingdom for Ghana’s post-colonial struggles.
This combination of faith and social commentary is only furthered with the ending segment by West and Larry Hoover Jr., the son of former Chicago gang leader Larry Hoover. Hoover speaks about his father, who has been imprisoned for 48 years despite legal statutes granting him the possibility of freedom, and the effects of his father’s incarceration on his family. He critiques not only the American criminal justice system, but speaks about capitalist society as a whole playing a part in restricting the socio-economic mobility of African Americans.
While these Christian elements of his music are new, West maintains many of the characteristics of his music that made him famous. His innovative use of sampling, which distinguished him first as a producer and then as a rapper, is shown in “Believe What I Say,” which samples “Doo Wop (That Thing)” by Lauryn Hill.
This unique combination of old and new is most evident in “New Again,” a song about his spiritual rebirth. Harkening back to the production and style of his 2007 hit album Graduation, the song heavily utilizes synths like those in “Flashing Lights.” Released two months before his mother’s death and the onslaughts of controversy that would come to define his fame, Graduation symbolized a joyous point in West’s life, bringing a bold new sound to hip hop. Yet despite the similarities in production, “New Again” is very much emblematic of his faith, thanking God for his mercy and begging him to “make me new again.”
Donda often shines the brightest when West is able to achieve a perfect balance between his religion and his music, setting it apart from its predecessor Jesus is King, which was considered a disappointment by most. “Hurricane,” the album’s lead single featuring The Weeknd and Lil Baby, is classic Kanye West stadium music, with subtle gestures towards his faith. In “Off The Grid,” another hit single, West, along with Playboi Carti and Fivio Foreign, take turns rapping about going “off the grid,” referencing his move to rural Wyoming to focus on God. Collaborating with Roddy Rich in “Pure Souls,” West talks about troubles in his life and what it means to reject sin.
In perhaps the emotional peak of the album, “Come to Life,” Kanye sings of his wish for another life while again mentioning the deterioration of his marriage: “I get mad when she gone, mad when she home, sad when she gone,” all the while thanking Jesus and God. With a touching piano instrumental by Tyler the Creator, West creates a surreal aura of somberness, conveying the ultimate vulnerability that prevails throughout the album.
At times, though, the album’s flaws do appear, interrupting this veil of beauty. Undoubtedly the album’s worst and least cohesive song, “Tell the Vision” is the alternate version of a homonymous song by the deceased rapper Pop Smoke. In an album that many considered rushed, “Tell the Vision” features irredeemably poor production and audio mixing, making it the absolute worst song on the album.
Ultimately, notwithstanding songs like “Tell the Vision” or “Ok Ok,” Donda is a tapestry of faith and love. In “Jesus Lord,” West refers to his mother as “the life of the party.” Named after this, the song “Life of the Party” is a lyrically brilliant collaboration with Outkast member André 3000, each raping about their deceased mothers in perhaps the best song released this year.
While certainly not eclipsing his greatest works like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or The College Dropout, Donda is a near masterpiece in its own right, showing that West, one of the most polarizing and complex figures in modern America, still has the capacity for greatness.