Kanye West: Donda (Deluxe)
Full disclosure: I did not want to listen to this album. I didn't want to touch it with a 99 1/2-foot pole, to be honest. But my sense of "fairness" brought me face-to-face with this two-plus-hour bear of a vanity project, even though I'd done quite well to avoid hearing a single note of it until now. All that being said, how is it?
Yes, self-indulgent. The project's length and the length of some of the tracks is testament enough of that. That being said, it is emotionally open. West doesn't hold back. Every ounce of his person, including his need to self-aggrandize and his incredible feelings of loss and guilt, is put into this album. Named after his mother, it's clear this is what he's been holding on to for some time since her passing. Though not every single piece is about her (and the self-loathing he's felt ever since she passed away) directly, we can hear the ants that have been running around in his mind. The little monsters that have made a home in his soul.
Musically, it's decent. Often beautiful. He does interesting things with syncopation, extreme bass and elemental beats ("Off the Grid," "Ok Ok"), always a welcome use of the soundboard. There are moments of gorgeous production and sampling. West's use of the iconic "Doo Wop (That Thing)" to give melodic grounding to track "Believe What I Say" really rounds out the first third of the two-plus-hour endeavor.
We do, of course, get moments of seeming self-congratulation (for instance, the insistence on recording a woman being touched by the spirit during a pastor's devotional in church on "Praise God," as if to suggest that he's, in fact, being praised and worshipped). But it doesn't overshadow West's earnest rebirth in Christ. Granted, born-again Christians often begin a large part of their rebirth being very self-congratulatory and self-righteous. So more than what many might perceive as unmedicated antics is really just par for the course for those returning to Christianity as self-perceived prophets.
That all being said and, from my experience, true, West does honestly humble himself before the altar of the Christian God (as opposed to his own). "Up From the Ashes" is perhaps West at his most humble. "I come to you empty," he says. No irony, no ego, no expectation of immediate acceptance. He does devolve into nonsense at times. Taking the piss because he knows he can and to add some levity to an album that cements his belief system. But Donda is a reassertion of Kanye West the man. Ego and all.
For all its over-exaggerated fanfare, West created an album that's as much about the loss of his mother as the complications of being in love with his wife when he's so absorbed with himself. Donda is an album about love ("Never Abandon Your Family") and what that means in the grander scope of the human experience. The spiritual, physical. How do we express that love and mean it, no matter how it manifests? It's a mixed bag. There are moments when the aural landscape is overwhelmingly beautiful ("God Breathed," "Lord I Need You," "Heaven and Hell"). Then again, there are moments that are full of the self-same ego that makes his music sometimes a slog to get through if you're searching for some depth. But overall, Donda is a good piece that shows a desire to get back to the stuff that matters: the music.
Of course, if you're hesitant to separate the very real (oftentimes negligent) egoism of the artist from the art, it'll be a bitch to get through regardless.