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“I gave up on doing things my way,” Kanye West sings on “Lord I Need You”. This lie arrives 20 songs into the rapper and producer’s long-delayed, near-mythical album, Donda. At two minutes 42 seconds, it’s one of the shortest tracks. Be grateful for small mercies.
Donda has experienced one of the most fraught and drawn-out music releases in recent memory. There are young artists trapped in label limbo literally begging to be allowed to release their albums, but Ye has been content to squeeze a few thousand more dollars from fans via last week’s listening party in Chicago before allowing them to hear his. Even after the record finally emerged on streaming services, West seemed desperate to undo it and proceeded to accuse his label, Universal, of releasing it without his permission.
It seems much more likely that West felt compelled to get a jump-start on his nemesis, Drake, who last week appeared to reveal his own delayed album, Certified Lover Boy, would be released on 3 September. The Canadian star is the subject of multiple swipes on Donda: “Move out the way of my release... Why can’t losers never lose in peace,” West gripes on the organ-fuelled “Junya”, a tribute to the Japanese designer. Many of these songs are misnomers – “Lord I Need You” actually delves into his fractured (but from the sounds of it, healing) relationship with his estranged wife, Kim Kardashian. Others are preoccupied by West’s protracted musings on God and Jesus; Donda’s gospel influences are far more intricately woven than its predecessor, 2019’s distracted-sounding Jesus is King.
Yet most of the best tracks recycle tricks from earlier, better songs. The uplifting “Believe What I Say” (one of the few truly brilliant tracks on Donda) samples Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Woop (That Thing)”, while the house beat thumping throughout is redolent of the racing pulse of “Stronger”. Meanwhile, the sluggish one-two punch of the motif on “Jail” only serves to recall the superior jabs on Kendrick Lamar’s 2017 track, “Humble”.
There are brief glimpses of the ingenuity that propelled genre-defying, era-defining works such as 2007’s Graduation or 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Mike Dean, a longtime West collaborator and one of the finest beatmakers in the game (who appeared close to quitting the project earlier this month), deploys a murky drum patter on “Remote Control”. Piano notes dart out like dolphins on the crests of a Hans Zimmer-indebted synth line on “Come to Life”. But these resplendent moments – like a second’s burst of sunshine through dark storm clouds – are so rare that by the time you emerge on the other side, they’re all but forgotten.
What is impossible to forget – or forgive – is the presence of two of music’s most despised figures on “Jail Pt 2”. West warned of the involvement of Marilyn Manson and DaBaby when the pair appeared at his Chicago listening party, standing with him on the porch of the house that once belonged to his mother. Manson joins West for the refrain – “Guess I’m going to jail tonight” – in a moment so flagrantly mocking it brings bile to my throat. It’s unclear whether West is attempting some kind of comment on “cancel culture” or using these men as a religious metaphor: neither is excusable. Manson currently faces multiple lawsuits over allegations of sexual assault (he has denied all accusations against him), including by actor Evan Rachel Wood, who alleged that Manson groomed and abused her for years. DaBaby, who has become increasingly stubborn in the face of criticism over his ignorant and homophobic comments about people living with HIV, takes the “poor me” route as he raps: “I say one thing they ain’t like… Threw me out like I’m garbage/ And that food that y’all took off my table?/ You know that feed my daughters?”
— linda belcher’s variant (@lucid_unicorn) August 27, 2021
West is evidently surrounded by a team who are too scared or too exhausted to say “no”, but it speaks volumes of society’s apathy towards rape survivors that Universal would release this album with Manson on it. Donda’s dragged-out release has often felt as though West was deliberately testing them, along with his fans, critics, and his label. How far can he go before we snap? For me, his Manson “stunt”, if you can call it that, is it. West has aligned himself with a man whom at least 15 women have accused of rape, sexual assault, grooming, assault, torture, physical and psychological abuse. He stood on his late mother’s porch with Manson, sang with him, openly mocking those women who were brave enough to come forward. Critics often have to remind themselves to review the music, not to get caught up in the hyperbole or controversy surrounding the artist. But by involving Manson, West has made this impossible. Donda leaves a sour taste that no number of good beats, gospel choirs or church organs will cleanse. Zero stars.