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Donda on Mother’s Day

Jack Wareham

Kanye West albums are anticipated with the same bated breath as State of the Union addresses. They are culture-defining for no particularly good reason, zeitgeist-productive in their own right. Kanye tracks carry immense gravity, and his recent Christian turn only clarifies the dynamic between him and his audience: that of passionate preacher and pious listeners.

Sure, there are specific motifs in Kanye albums – redemption and grace, the vicissitudes of celebrity culture, the contours of contemporary antiblackness – but mostly they are empty signifiers, made legendary by their innate feeling of weightiness. There can be no small, unpretentious, stripped-back Kanye album. Kanye will not make a Let It Be.

‘Kanye will not make a Let It Be.’

Donda, finally released in September after Kanye's traditional ritual of false release dates and endless delays, promises a lot. It is a reflection on his bipolar disorder and reinvigorated Christianity, the document of his high-profile divorce with an international superstar, and a celebration of his late mother Donda West, the most important figure in his body of work. It promises to integrate his retro taste for gospel with a few trap beats. Kanye West is not fucking around.

Okay, Kanye West is fucking around a little. At the last minute, he substituted the planned album art, an ethereal Christian scene of rapture that looks a little like the Stargate sequence from 2001 and a lot like Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’, for a black square.

This is a nod of solidarity to protests against police violence, but it’s also Kanye West’s ‘Black Album’: music, plain and simple, a ‘Fuck You’ to the marketing and optics machine that is for Kanye a source of both terror and delight. Pairing the black square with the title Donda adds a womblike dimension to the cover, as if we’re witnessing Kanye’s prehistoric memory of his mother. It’s also a black abyss surrounding his work on all sides, the traumatic void he staves off by producing music, like the gradually darkening Rothko paintings in which the center almost entirely swallows the periphery.

Donda permeates the album. Her voice appears on numerous interludes, and in the album's first track, ‘Donda Chant’, the only sound is her name repeated 58 times (Donda was 58 when she passed away in 2007). Fan theories instantly circulated that the rhythm of the chant matches that of her final heartbeats. This is surely apocryphal, but the track does have an uncanny, organic flow to it.

Fans will note that Kanye's mother is by no means a new subject for him. The almost torturous intimacy that seems to characterize their relationship is evident in 2005's ‘Hey Mama’, a track on which Kanye, with an air of childlike naivety, raps about wanting to take care of Donda. The song finishes with Kanye repeatedly rapping ‘Mama’ over a synth that has the softly childish ring of a xylophone.

Donda is surely Kanye’s best project of the past five years, but his detractors will not find much to celebrate. Filler tracks abound, bringing its total runtime to an hour and forty-eight minutes. Then, there's his much-maligned lyricism. The verses on Donda are mostly okay, although they’re not as funny as those on Yeezus (e.g. ‘New Slaves’: ‘Fuck you and your Hampton house/I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse’). Donda is replete with corny throwaways like ‘We used to do the freak like seven days a week/It’s the best collab since Taco Bell and KFC’.

All of this brings up the tired comparison between ‘Old Kanye’ and ‘New Kanye’. The ‘Old Kanye’ of College Dropout and Late Registration, a veritable poet, took up hefty subject matter with lucid wordplay, while the ‘New Kanye’ drowns his audience in megalomania and offensive gag jokes. To me, the stunning, verbose lyrics of Kanye’s early albums smack of an identification with Donda, a college English teacher and master of letters. Perhaps the failure of this identification following her death in 2007 could explain why most of his newer lyrics sound like they were written five minutes before recording.

‘[T]he stunning, verbose lyrics of Kanye’s early albums smack of an identification with Donda, a college English teacher and master of letters’.

The object lesson is 2018’s ‘Lift Yourself’, a single that is thoroughly gorgeous until its last thirty seconds when Kanye begins rapping ‘Poopy-di scoop/Scoop-diddy-whoop/Whoop-di-scoop-di-poop’. The message is clear: the ‘New Kanye’ prefers lush instrumentals that teem with a traumatic, powerful kernel of inarticulable experience. Kanye effaces his own lyrics, producing tracks that are like punctuation without text.

In fact, the central theme of his post-Graduation work is the intrusion of intense musical energy into the meaningless symbolic world of language, which is usually equated with vapid fame culture. In Yeezus’s ‘On Sight’ a humdrum buzzsaw synth provides the backing for some of Kanye’s most infamously immature verses. But then he interrupts himself with a ten second interlude of a gospel choir that carries an enormous, haunting beauty. Kanye hates his lyrics as much as you do.

‘Kanye hates his lyrics as much as you do.’

The best moments of Donda dramatize this tension between language and sound, like when ‘Jail’ breaks down into a stripped back industrial drum beat, or when the falsetto ‘Jesus… Lord’ punctuates Kanye’s verse on his track of the same name.

If the entire affair feels less powerful and visceral than Yeezus or Life of Pablo, it’s probably because Kanye’s renewed enthusiasm for Christianity seems to have attenuated the intensity of his psychosis. In ‘Jesus is Lord’, Kanye asks, ‘If I talk to Christ, can I bring my mother back to life?’ With Donda, he's done just that – resurrected his mother’s body and celebrated her immortal soul with gospel music. It’s a little like Bob Dylan’s born-again phase. The music may suffer, but at least he’s steadied out.

Here is the paradox of Kanye’s life and work: His albums clearly display delusions of grandeur, but they are often met with an enormous critical celebration of his creative genius. This makes Kanye both utterly delusional and completely in touch with a communal social reality. Curiously, this contradiction has the same structure as the one that defines social life itself – the embodiment of falsehood until it has the aura of reality.

Poet, fashion designer, evangelical pastor… Sure, why not? Maybe next he’ll become a Satanist, or a stand-up comedian, or a prog rock aficionado. Either way, I’ll be eagerly waiting, hanging on every word.