Kanye West Donda

Fans watch Kanye West during "The Donda Experience" listening party at Soldier Field on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, in Chicago. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

As the world woke up on the morning of Sunday, Aug. 29, it was greeted with an overnight gift in their music libraries from one of the most controversial names in the industry: Kanye West’s highly anticipated album “Donda.” Whoever said that “the best gifts come in small packages” obviously spoke too soon before the “Donda” drop. This 27-track album is chock full of motifs, features, styles and emotions — an amalgamation of everything that makes Kanye a musical and cultural icon. Regardless of your fan status of the eccentric artist, there is no denying that the release of “Donda” is hard to ignore.

“Donda” explores a variety of themes across its nearly two-hour run time. Grief is, perhaps, the most obvious motif that appears and reappears consistently across many tracks in the album. It is no surprise that this is a prevalent theme, since the album is named after West’s late mother. From the opening track, “Donda Chant,” which is 52 seconds of West’s late mother’s name being spoken over and over again, to a snippet of Donda West talking about her son in the song “Donda,” “Donda” is an album that manifests West’s grief at his mother’s passing. Aiding the grief, guilt and regrets that ate at Kanye West following the death of his mother was his faith; Christianity and religion were an important theme in “Donda.” Following his previous release, the Christian album “Jesus is King,” West introduced the world to a brand new, deeply faithful side of himself, and he has not let us forget. Titles like “Praise God,” “Jonah” and “Lord I Need You” remind listeners of West’s reliance upon his faith to get him through the many trials and tribulations that seem to find him. 

Listening through the extensive run time of the LP is a daunting task for new and avid fans alike, so here are some of the standout tracks to help ease into the album. “Jail” is a guitar-heavy, classic-rock-sounding song to kick off the album. 

“Lyrically, Kanye shows both attitude and vulnerability,” said Sam Quesenberry, a junior majoring in public relations. “Not to mention, I could listen to Jay-Z’s word play on Jail’s beat all day.” 

Another stand-out track is “Heaven and Hell.” Starting out with a simple beat, Kanye tries to empathize with the human race and make a point that faith is the way to inner peace as he commands listeners to “Burn false idols, Jesus’ disciples / I can feel your pain now, I done bled my vein out.” In addition to the obvious lyrics about faith, the instrumentals on this song prove the same point and are a musical treat. After a beat of Kanye rapping a capella, commanding the devil down, the instrumentals kick back in triumphantly. The musical swell can be described as jubilant, exultant, and enveloping — the feeling Kanye says his faith has given him. The simple-to-extravagant sound and passionately faithful lyrics pair wonderfully together to make this one of the best songs on the album.

A hallmark of Kanye West’s music has been sampling — from his most famous sampling of Ray Charles on “Gold Digger” to the catchy sample of the Ponderosa Twins’ “Plus One” on “Bound 2.” “Donda” was no exception to this cornerstone of West’s music, but perhaps the best sample on the album can be found in the track “Believe What I Say.” The song samples the intro to Lauryn Hill’s “Doo-Wop (That Thing),” but adds a groovy and electrified bass line under it. Kanye raps about freeing himself from society’s conventions, and encourages his audience to not “let the lifestyle drag you down.” The subject matter of this song, in addition to the sound, is not too heavy and makes for easy listening. In a word, this song is the epitome of a “vibe.” 

I would be remiss to ignore the pitfalls of “Donda,” however. While the themes of Kanye’s faith, self-realization and rejection of conventional norms are in line with Kanye’s image, the songs off this album tend to come off as preachy and, at times, it almost becomes hypocritical. For example, one of the themes heavily focused upon in the album is the toxicity of cancel culture, a movement that West has fallen victim to. While he rejects cancel culture for wrongfully painting a bad image of himself and many creators alike, he promotes Marilyn Manson, who has been accused of domestically abusing his former partner Evan Rachel Wood, on his features as a misunderstood artist who has fallen victim to cancel culture himself. 

Perhaps the biggest way in which “Donda” failed was structurally. Twenty-seven songs is a lot to try to string together. Combine that fact with the numerous motifs that Kanye West tries to touch on throughout, and the listener is left with one large playlist of his songs that are incohesive, disorganized and lacking in greater meaning due to the messiness of it all. 

“It felt like a few songs were thrown together, forced, or left incomplete,” Quesenberry said. “I go back and revisit old Ye albums, but I don’t see myself sitting down for 1 hour and 48 minutes again. Donda truly exceeded my expectations, yet I feel the album was good, not great.”

Despite the places where it was lacking, “Donda” makes for a creative departure from mainstream rap music. If there’s one thing Kanye West does well, it is harnessing the power that comes from his personal style time and time again, and he does that exceptionally well on “Donda.” The biggest way in which he was able to achieve this on his latest release was by integrating gospel music and carrying over Christian themes from his previous release into this new album. 

Additionally, the numerous features on “Donda” allowed for a more unique listening experience as the individual styles of different artists, from newcomers like Baby Keem to veterans like Jay-Z, contribute to the sound of the album. 

“In Donda, it feels like he’s finally opening up to the new age of rappers by incorporating them into his album,” said Vanessa Scola, a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “For example, DaBaby and Playboi Carti, very new, up and coming artists are featured.”

Lastly, Kanye West’s embrace of his public image — the good, the bad and the ugly — and owning up to his past failures contributed heavily to what made “Donda” unlike any other recent release. Some may consider this to be a sign of surrender, but Kanye West waving a white flag on “Donda” made for a refreshing listening experience as we got to see the vulnerable side of the world’s favorite egotist

Whether or not you consider “Donda” to be a masterful mixtape of songs representing Kanye’s personality, or just a cacophony of sound indicating that the artist is past his prime, that is a choice the listener must make themselves. Regardless, “Donda” is one of the biggest releases of this year. It is choral, it is vulnerable, it is bold and it is the perfect representation of the artist: chaotic, subtly genius and impossible to ignore.