‘Believe What I Say,’ don’t be too quick to criticize Kanye West’s ‘Donda’

Declan McDaniels

After five weeks of speculation and four live listening events, Kanye West’s long-awaited album, ‘Donda,’ finally dropped on the morning of Aug. 29. The album is dedicated to his mother, Donda West, who unexpectedly passed away on Nov. 10, 2007 of coronary artery disease and post-operative complications from a liposuction the day before. With 108 minutes and 27 total songs, “Donda” focuses on themes related to Kanye’s divorce from Kim Kardashian, how his mother has impacted his life and his relationship with God and faith.

Kanye and Donda West pose at the 2006 Grammy Awards. 15 years later, Kanye dedicates his album “Donda” to his mother, who died on Nov. 10, 2007. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

Kanye West has arguably the most complete discography in hip-hop history, and he is one of the most influential artists of this generation. Projects such as 2007’s “Graduation,” 2010’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,”  2013’s “Yeezus” and more have revolutionized rap in a way that few artists can mirror. While many admire Kanye for his musical creativity and relentless ambition, others see him as an arrogant attention seeker with an ego larger than his bank account. No matter how you view Kanye’s character, his knowledge in the rap game and his impact on the music industry is nearly unmatched. 

“Donda” highlights some of Kanye’s best qualities as an artist and a creator. As expected, the production of the album is incredible on every track. Mixing the gospel aspect from his 2019 project “Jesus is King” with elements of trap music makes for an exciting and unique sound throughout the album. The vocals are some of the finest we have heard from Kanye, and he brings out the best of every guest verse. 

Preparing for his first listening party in Atlanta on July 22nd, Kanye started a livestream and showed fans his spiked Balenciaga outfit in his living quarters at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. At different points of the livestream, Kanye was seen lifting weights, doing push-ups, and chatting with producer Mike Dean. The rapper ended up staying an extra two weeks in the stadium to work on the album. (Photo courtesy of Apple Music)

The album begins with “Donda Chant,” in which we hear Syleena Johnson say the name “Donda” repeatedly in different patterns, tones and cadences. This eerie intro track mimics Kanye’s mother’s last heartbeats, and the name is repeated 58 times, representing the age at which Donda lost her life. The tone takes a complete turn with the next song, “Jail,” a remarkably powerful track featuring Jay-Z, who recorded his verse just hours before the first official “Donda” listening party at Mercedes-Benz Superdome in Atlanta, Ga. Marking their first real song together as a duo since their collaboration album,“Watch The Throne,” Kanye and Jay-Z rap about “goin’ to jail,” assuring that “God gon’ post my bail.” Whatever metaphorical “jail” Kanye feels that he has been confined in, he believes that God will save him. Kanye starts the song by singing, “Take what you want, take everything,” possibly referring to either his divorce with Kardashian or his commitment to God. 

Kanye’s vulnerability on “Donda” gives us an engaging insight into his personal struggles, illustrating his headspace amidst persistent media criticism and public attention. On “Lord I Need You,” Kanye reflects on his relationship with Kim Kardashian after seven years of marriage. On ”Come to Life,” Kanye beautifully sings about his desire for another life, his mixed emotions about Kardashian’s presence alongside him and how he doesn’t want to die alone. On “Jesus Lord,” one of the standout tracks on the album, we are given an insight into Kanye’s mind as he depicts his struggles with mental health issues and portrays the thoughts he has in his life without his mother. Lines such as “Mama, you was the life of the party/I swear you brought life to the party/When you lost your life, it took the life out the party” 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?/But back to reality where everything’s a tragedy,” are some of the most emotional lyrics in the album. Jay Electronica takes the second verse on the song, dropping spiritual references and calling out white supremacy in one of the best features on the album. Not only is the production on these songs spectacular, but the lyrical content displays a side of Kanye that we have not seen in a while. 

Standing next to Kanye at his final listening party in Chicago on Aug. 26, Kim Kardashian wears a wedding dress for unknown reasons, as the couple recently filed for divorce. (Photo courtesy of Apple Music)

The abundance of features on “Donda” contrasts what we’ve seen in Kanye’s recent albums, as he collaborated with over 25 artists. With Roddy Ricch and Shenseea on “Pure Souls,” The Weeknd and Lil Baby on “Hurricane,” Baby Keem and Travis Scott on “Praise God,” Conway the Machine and Westside Gunn on “Keep My Spirit Alive,” Don Toliver and Kid Cudi on “Moon” and Fivio Foreign and Playboi Carti on “Off The Grid,” none of these songs are worth skipping. Foreign dropped a career-defining verse on “Off the Grid,” and Kanye follows by matching his high energy on this New York drill beat; he sounds more inspired and re-energized than we’ve seen him in a while. Kanye is really rapping again.

While this is easily Kanye’s best release since 2016’s “The Life Of Pablo,” it seems to lack a thorough narrative, which is often the centerpiece of his albums. The content and structure of “Donda” from song to song is messy and 27 tracks is generally far too much for an album; there are a number of songs that could be taken out without much notice. 

Surrounded by lights beaming towards the sky, Kanye floats up above the crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium during his first listening party on July 22nd. He does this while playing the last song on the album, “No Child Left Behind,” which features Vory and his Sunday Service Choir. (Photo courtesy of WWD)

“Junya,” while very catchy and upbeat, does not seem to offer much lyrically to the album as a whole. “Remote Control” is nowhere near attention grabbing; that is, until the last 15 seconds of the song, when Kanye satirically samples the viral video “Globglogabgalab.” “Ok, ok,” featuring Fivio Foreign, Lil Yatchy and Rooga, is accurately described by the name of the song. While there are many songs like these that seem randomly placed within the album, the production is still top tier, and they don’t deserve extensive criticism.

Since the release of “Donda,” analysts have been split on their impressions of the highly anticipated project. The album has received a considerable amount of judgement, but forming a concrete opinion within just a few days is problematic. Projects of this magnitude must be replayed multiple times and analyzed closely to truly understand the complete depth of the sound, lyrics, and more. Individually, almost every song on this album deserves strong positive recognition, and if it was more structured, “Donda” would be a masterpiece.