“God’s not finished,” Kanye West sings repeatedly at the end of one of his new songs, “24.” Being made in God’s image, West very much relates to that; he doesn’t like being done with things, either. Yet here we have the miracle, a true, blue spectacle, of a finished “Donda,” the album that until this weekend seemed poised to challenge Guns N’ Roses’ “Chinese Democracy” as the most mythologically delayed major music release ever. Unless he’s going to pull a “Life of Pablo” on us, it’s really done — no more tweaks and do-overs to put in front of a series of the largest focus groups of all time.
With the album clocking in at a length of one hour and 47 minutes, with no fewer than 27 songs (although the last four are effectively alternate-version bonus tracks), there’s a lot to digest here… admittedly more than can be adequately coughed up as a day-1 reaction. What’s immediately clear is the inadequacy of the title to encapsulate West’s obsessions here. He returns just often enough to his late and beloved mother to almost plausibly claim concept-album status, but she has to share roughly equal space on his 2021 mantle of obsessions with Jesus, Kim Kardashian, himself and, naturally, Drake, who seems to be haunting our hero more than Satan ever could. (In answer to the question, “What would Jesus do?,” we have a pretty clear answer: He’d suddenly rush his album out to beat the devil’s.)
On a purely musical level, “Donda” is close to unassailable; any time spent tarrying on its release has been time well-wasted. It’d be hard to contend that an album that lasts nearly two hours exactly flies by, but until it gets to those last four completely superfluous remixes, it’s a collection that never comes close to wearing out its welcome, alternating the brooding and the banging with a well-honed sense of dynamics. That goes for the way gospel touches are more subtly integrated than in “Jesus Is King,” and how he can instantly veer from the Sunday Service choir-augmented “24” to the completely mechanical “Remote Control,” and at other times work hip-hop portent for all it’s worth in numbers like “Heaven and Hell” and then arrive at something as cheerful as his terrific collab with Roddy Ricch, “Pure Souls,” one of a few songs on the album that uses an organ not for gospel effect.
“Believe What I Say” has the kind of bass line that immediately makes it a great party song, even if lines like “Go on and get your best attorney” and “Lil’ baby Jesus ain’t laughing, no” may not fit anyone’s idea of club fodder. And he can pull out a pleasingly genre-crossing surprise like “Jail,” a highly melodic pop-alt-rock song with power chords and anthemic chorus lines that somebody like Imagine Dragons might give their dragons’ eye teeth for.
Let it be said here that we’re talking about the “Jail” that occurs near the beginning of the album and not the “Jail Pt. 2” that comes near the end, with a remix that brings on as featured guests Marilyn Manson and DaBaby, probably the two most widely despised figures in music in 2021 so far, for the former rocker’s rape and sexual assault allegations and lawsuits and the latter rapper’s less and less repentant-seeming homophobia. Conceptually, it makes a kind of sense, maybe, in West’s biblically informed worldview — as well as in just a completely trolling worldview — to write a song that deals with original sin and backsliding, sort of, and then bring on two figures who could certainly rival the Apostle Paul as “the worst of all sinners.” But conceptual hubris aside… In a year in which there are so many urgent topical subjects someone wanting to zone in on the zeitgeist could have written about, what does it say about this album that the only moments on “Donda” that speak directly to Where We Are Now in 2021 are the verses in which DaBaby gets defensive about his gay-bashing and AIDS-shaming? “That food that you took off my table / You know that feed my daughters, huh?,” DaBaby asks, angrily appealing to his LGBTQ critics to have pity for his diminished income before affirming: “Only thing I did to you / Was always keep it real and true.”
But then again, the conflict between Christian humility and utter hubris is a recurring one on the album, though West is more often than not seeing pride as a feature, not a flaw. He’s famously a subscriber to the so-called prosperity gospel rampant for decades in some circles of Pentecostalism — the spirit of Joel Osteen is not absent here — which makes for some almost comic juxtapositions. Guest rapper Styles of the Lox gets to the heart of this in a rhyme on the epic remix of “Jesus Lord” that ends the album: “Now I’m talkin’ to Jesus / Real shallow ****, probably pray for a gray coupe / Maybe the Lykan or a mansion out in the Seychelles.” (The expletive is deleted on the album itself; all curse words, including the N-word, have been edited out, making the “clean” version the only version.) In “Heaven and Hell,” it’s West himself quickly jumping from “We on Bezos, we get payrolls / Trips to Lagos, connect like LEGOs” to “Burn false idols, Jesus’ disciples” literally without the time to skip a heartbeat.
And West is definitely not looking to reach out to Drake to attend Sunday Service. His Canuck nemesis never gets mentioned by name, of course, but he’s called out in spirit often enough: “Move out of the way of my release / Why can’t losers never lose in peace,” West warns in “Junya” (otherwise a tribute to Junya Watanabe, the Japanese designer), and in “Ok Ok,” it’s “You wanna come in and play with the G.O.A.T. — bow,” he commands. That’s presumably not to the throne of the Father but, as Jay-Z puts it on his verse on “Jail,” “the return of The Throne / Hova and Yeezus, like Moses and Jesus.” Well, you can’t spell Yahweh without Y-E.
Suffice it to say that while “Jesus Is King” won an award from the Gospel Music Association, “Donda,” for all its frequent godly concerns, probably won’t, much as his belief system may indeed still overlap with his evangelical brethren. Some of that has to do with the featured artists, who are not quite so adherent to the faith as West continues to be. Take Lil Yachty, whose rap on “Ok Ok” brags, “I just took her over the mountain with my finger,” a nice complement to the sly oral-sex reference in “Believe What I Say.” Anyone who worried, like Drake recently did with his tongue apparently in cheek, that West might never return to “secular” music can rest easy here — he has, although the 25-plus guests on the album sometimes go a little further than the star. West is in something like the place Bob Dylan was, perhaps, when he followed two strictly evangelical albums with the more divided concerns of the transitional “Shot of Love.” On “Donda,” West is not afraid to take a lot of shots of irreverence.
But some of the guests, certainly, are down with the mission, like the previously none-too-sacred-leaning Weeknd, who brings out an unknown gospel side on “Hurricane” with a chorus as ineffable as any on his albums’ that declares, “Finally free, found the God in me / And I want you to see, I can walk on water.” (A declaration of religious devotion, or a preview of the Weeknd’s next VMAs production number?) Also of note, West is not so tied to specifically Christian belief that he’s unwilling to allow equal time for the Islamic and other references that come from the album’s two Jays: Jay-Z (who suggests “pray five times a day” on “Jail”) and, at much greater length, from Jay Electronica (“My bars is like the pyramid temples of Pacal Votan / As sure as the DOJ confirmed Ezekiel’s wheel / I could change the world like Yacub with two pieces of steel” — well, of course).
At the risk of sacrilege, “Kim Is King” could be a subtitle for the parts of the album that tease our understanding of what their fractured relationship was, is and may be… as further flaunted by the faux-wedding the Wests went through in front of millions of streaming viewers Thursday night in Chicago. “Lord I Need You” starts as a gospel song, then quickly becomes a confessional about his marriage… maybe written earlier, when it wasn’t yet to the point of a legal filing (“Startin’ to feel like you ain’t been happy for me lately, darlin’,” he sings, somewhat belatedly), or maybe in the hopes of a present-day reconciliation, based either in reality or keeping us intrigued. “But you came here to show that you still in love with me,” he asserts, in a line ripped right out of Friday morning’s headlines, seemingly.
“Lord I Need You” is not the only ADHD song on the album that starts as an anthem of devotion and then trips off in an entirely different direction. So is “Jesus Lord,” which gets off to a Christian start with West, then gets into a different kind of mystic with Jay Electronica, and finally ends, movingly but incongruously, with a spoken-word coda by the son of Larry Hoover, one of the imprisoned figures that West went to beseech then-president Trump about in 2018. It’s three perfectly good songs in one — but the sort of subject-changing thing that makes “Donda” sometimes feel like it includes 81 songs, not 27.
West does stay focused for at least one complete song, though, and it might be the best thing he’s ever done — certainly it’s the most beautiful: “Come to Life,” which utterly drops the pride — yes, he can do it — to focus on depression and humility, accompanied by cascading, overlapping pianos and guitar chords straight off a pure pop album… a great one. West will probably never sing a less proud couplet in his life than: “Brought a gift to Northie, all she wants is Nikes / This is not about me, God is still alive, so I’m free.” When the world’s most famous Adidas guy can sing that, you can believe in holy transformation.
On “God Breathed,” one of the very best songs, the album’s MYP guest, the singer Vory, stands in for West when he sings: “They hearts are filled with greed / Okay, now they want the old me.” The thing is, for worse and (mostly) better, we’ve got the old West on “Donda.” Sunday Service is present and accounted for, but we’re at Friday night services when he’s reverting to self-glorifying couplets that err on the side of corniness, if not sin, like: “Not Wakanda but Wakanda is kinda like what we ’bout to make / And who gon’ make it? Kan’, duh.” It’s a kind of comfort food, really, to have him so firmly in his boastful zone… and it doesn’t necessarily cancel out the communion wafers.