Kanye West. Just writing his name conjures a chaotic storm of thoughts and emotions. The mercurial producer has meant so many different things to so many people for so long that he’s basically become something of a human Rorschach test. Every listener to his latest project — the oft-delayed and much-hyped Donda — will project something different onto it, reading into it exactly what they see, so it almost feels anticlimactic to type this: My only takeaway from this hefty, exhausting listen (it clocks in at nearly two hours, along with tacked-on, remixed versions of four early records, which are the ones that will likely garner much of the attention) is that it is pretty much exactly what I expected.
What I expected was this: A Picasso napkin doodle. That is, for better or worse, what Kanye delivered. The story, so it goes, is that one night, Picasso is sitting at a cafe (one sign that this tale is likely apocryphal: no one seems to know what he ordered, whom he’s with, or even what cafe this supposedly was) when he’s approached by a fan who asks him for a quick sketch on a paper napkin. He does the sketch, a line drawing of a dove, and requests an exorbitant sum for what is, essentially, a doodle. The fan, taken aback, asks what possible reason he could have for asking for so much for something that took so little apparent effort and time. Picasso replies that it took him 40 years to draw it — the implication being that it was his name and experience that made the drawing valuable, not the drawing itself.
Kanye probably feels great resonance with this story; it’s no coincidence that he first started pulling his current schtick of slapping together a collection of song sketches and calling them albums in 2016 when he released The Life Of Pablo. Perhaps it was then that he realized that, because he’d given the world College Dropout and Late Registration and Graduation, and hell, even 808s And Heartbreak, that he could get away with putting out stuff as garish and grandiose as Yeezus and Ye, that the spectacle would outweigh the underwhelming output, that the name “Kanye West” held more truck with fans than anything he’s actually put out into the world. All that legend building he did early in his career calling himself a genius and a visionary and a god had finally paid off.
It’s on the backs of those boundary-pushing, genre-stretching works that he crafted the myth of Kanye the perfectionist, who once tweaked the mix on “Stronger” well over 70 times with the help of eighteen different engineers before employing Timbaland to get the sound just right. If you played any of those 75 other versions of the mix for a fan, I doubt they’d hear much difference or be able to articulate it if they could hear it. But it’s the story — which, when you think about it, could be just as apocryphal as Picasso’s napkin — that sells the image of the Kanye who could get away with hosting three different listening sessions for Donda, each time playing a slightly different version of the album, and each time pushing back the release date just another week, another few days, perhaps never even intending to put anything out at all, as his temper tantrum toward Universal for apparently dropping it without his permission suggests.
And as for the version of the album that did hit DSPs, it’s as I expected, somehow both half-baked and overwrought, a bundle of contradictions and experiments and unearned group assignment B pluses that both perfectly sums up who Kanye is now without telling us very much about him at all. To judge from the title, you might have thought this album would finally find Kanye coming to terms with his anguish and ennui at the loss of his doting mother in 2007. There is some of that here, yes, such as the primal scream therapy of “Come To Life” and on the introspective first half of his verse on “Jesus Lord” which features a more expansive contribution from Jay Electronica. Kanye wrestles with the public dissolution of his relationship with Kim Kardashian on “Lord I Need You” and nods to his faith on “Heaven And Hell.”
But even from the opening track, the much-vaunted and twice-updated “Jail” featuring Kanye’s highly anticipated reunion with Jay-Z, the album comes across unfocused, unmoored, diffuse, and to be honest, kind of boring. There are long swaths of synth choir noodling that feel like they’re meant to sound moody and intense and deep, and it just comes across as pretentious and shallow like that clove-smoking jerk Kyle in Lady Bird, trying to project an image of mysterious cool because he doesn’t actually have anything interesting to talk about. Whenever Kanye’s production swivels into anything resembling novel territory or evokes the past excitement he used to stir up with his bold, broad splashes of inspiration from outside hip-hop and R&B, he immediately throws away that goodwill with a disorienting, unnerving left turn into more maudlin muck.
Most of the album’s truly exciting moments come from outside artists; the moments when the production perks up are marred by the memories of someone else doing it first and better. Take the sample of a cover of gospel singer Tonex’s “Make Me Over” sung by Briana Babineaux. It’s a gorgeous rendition and clever use of the sample — that Westside Boogie already did on his own song called “Make Me Over” from the 2015 mixtape The Reach. On “Believe What I Say,” a flip of Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” sounds suspiciously like rival rapper Drake’s own use on the 2014 “Draft Day” freestyle that he re-released on 2019’s Care Package. Kanye doesn’t even rap on “Moon” with Don Toliver and Travis Scott, letting them do the heavy lifting. In fact, most of the bright spots on the album come from its guests: Lil Baby on “Hurricane,” Lil Durk and Vory on “Jonah,” Roddy Ricch on “Pure Souls.”
Even then, these moments stick out like sore thumbs as they guide the direction of their individual collaborations, unglued from any overarching theme or thesis. Kanye simply invites them to come to do what they normally do, which doesn’t tie into anything he’s trying to say — and it seems like he wants to say so many things, but the message becomes so muddled it’s hard to say what. The one thing that’s clear is that he wants absolution, which may be the hardest pill to swallow. He seems to think he’s the incorrigible lead from some 1970s-era family sitcom; deliberate missteps like cavorting with accused abusers such as Marilyn Manson and the disgraced but unrepentant DaBaby should be viewed as standard, episode-of-the-week hijinks from a charming troublemaker. They’re not. He still hasn’t quite apologized for whatever damage his association with Donald Trump did over the past five years, nor for his ill-advised (and likely Trump-sponsored) Presidential run in 2020. If this project is a tribute to his mother, it’s a poor one if he thinks these are the people she’d most want to hear him supported by and supporting.
But it’s all more myth-making to him. The spectacle, again, is all. He can make the claim that Def Jam took the album without his permission and that’s why it sounds so incomplete and he can say that it sounds that way because he’s a real artist and if you don’t get it that’s on you. He’s a leader and a genius and a victim and a lost little boy who just misses his mom. He’s Kanye West; he can be whatever he wants to be and whatever you want him to be at the same time. Except that’s not how it works. Nobody gets to have it both ways — not even Kanye West.
Donda is out now via Def Jam. Get it here.