At midnight on the dot, a great new Kanye West production dropped into the eager maws of waiting fans. It was, of course, “Industry Baby,” the new single and gaysploitation-prison-heat video by Lil Nas X, which West co-produced with the studio duo Take a Daytrip.
What did not appear at midnight, to nobody’s surprise except that of the sweetest, least jaded Ye stans out there, was West’s promised new album Donda. That record, named for his mother, who died in 2007, was previously slated for release almost exactly a year ago but never materialized. This time, the album certainly came closer to fruition. Earlier on Thursday night, West held a livestreamed, superspreader listening party for it at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium. While the tracks played, he mostly paced around the supposedly $150,000 white stage overlaid on the field, with occasional murky projections on its surface. He was clad entirely in red, aside from a full-face brown mask shroud of the kind he’s been sporting lately, never speaking to the (by contrast, mostly maskless) crowd—all of which I personally enjoyed as a kind of perverse purportedly post-pandemic mood piece.
Still, having heard the version of the album played during the stream, I’d venture that without a substantial Donda overhaul, “Industry Baby” will go down as the best thing Kanye West had a hand in this week. (Lil Nas X’s single probably also did more for criminal justice reform than West ever has, despite West’s posturing on that issue.)
A possible midrelease, radical revision is not uncommon for West. When 2016’s The Life of Pablo was first auditioned on a stream, I doubted it, but I was converted by the sonic splendors of the final version—which famously turned out to be not exactly final either, after West tweeted, “Ima fix Wolves,” and then did. However, there’s been a lot of holy water under a lot of burned bridges since then. There was West’s heel turn into a MAGA hat–wearing Trump sympathizer; his bipolar disorder diagnosis, which he announced at the time of his very mixed 2018 album Ye; a religious turn of the born-again variety that prepared the way for his last full studio album, the gospel choir–soaked Jesus Is King (plus two successive Christmas EPs in 2019 and 2020); his dead-end “campaign” as a presidential spoiler candidate last year; and, most recently, his ongoing divorce from spouse Kim Kardashian West. Critics have had to contemplate both how to cover a billionaire artist who aided and abetted Trump’s stealth-white-supremacist agenda and how to adjudicate the work of someone seemingly in the grip of an ongoing public psychological crisis.
In the process, West’s music, his indelible gift, seemed to lose the sustained intensity that marked all of his work up to 2016, no matter how chockablock with contradictory ideas or how eccentric his real-world antics. Now, the releases sounded scattered and incomplete, still replete with memorable peaks but with valleys full of sticky oobleck to wade through between them. What listeners often heard on the Donda livestream last night felt more compelling than West’s recent rough drafts, but it was hard to imagine how much work it would take to dispel that same overall impression of patchy unfinishedness.
What I can say about Donda in its Thursday night state—based on very limited listening, and having been half-stupefied by nearly two hours of audience chatter white noise on the livestream before West finally showed up—is that it partly splits the difference between the self-reflective ramblings of Ye and the repentant God-bothered-ness of the latest records. On perhaps its most fully realized track, “Pure Souls,” West raps, “It ain’t how it used to be/ This a new me, so get used to me.” There’s no sign here of swearing off his gospel period, or of starting to swear again at all, for that matter. (Literally, no “fucks” are given.)
On the other hand, in the most immediately buzzed about of the many feature appearances that sometimes make Donda feel like a various artists mixtape as much as a straight-up Kanye West record, long-estranged guest Jay-Z assures West’s mom’s spirit that he’s “told ’im to stop all that red cap, we goin’ home”—an anti-MAGA reference from which one dares to draw a little hope. Jay adds, more self-effacingly, “Not me, with all these sins, casting stones”—and then tops it with the fan-baiting tease, “This might be the return of the throne,” a reference to the pair’s 2011 duo album, Watch the Throne, that I might be inclined to take a bit more seriously if word hadn’t leaked that Jay recorded his verse only a few hours before the listening party started. And there’s indeed a bit of a flat, first-take sound to it, though Jay makes sure to have his wordplay game cranked up high enough to leave no doubt which of the two is the master here. And that all happens over a (sampled? or live?) scorching extended electric guitar solo and high keening vocals from West, who sings about God paying his bail if he goes to jail, closing out the set at a level of high drama I wish it attained more often.
The other features on the album include Pusha T, Playboi Carti, Travis Scott, Baby Keem, Lil Baby, Don Toliver, Lil Durk, Roddy Ricch, and the Texas rapper-singer Vory, and West gets good stuff out of pretty much all of them—often better than he gets from himself. Except for the songs in which he directly addresses his grief over his mother’s loss and, far more freshly, the breakup of his family—especially the intensely mournful track fans have called alternatively “Losing My Family” or “Welcome to My Life,” which is stirringly personal enough to summon up 808s and Heartbreak—West often seems oddly at a loss for what to say here. In fact, there are quite a few tracks where his voice isn’t heard at all, and while his studio sensibility is surely still setting the mood, it can make this version of Donda feel like it has a bit of a hole in its center—not just the matriarch’s absence (represented in long samples from her speeches and other recordings) but, in some sense, also her son’s.
There are a couple of out-and-out strange decisions too, such as the Pop Smoke feature “We Made It,” which turns out to be mostly a segment of the West-produced track “Tell the Vision” on the late Brooklyn drill star’s recently released posthumous album Faith. Aside from trying to lure back some listeners who fled West’s own faith-centric new songs, it’s not clear what it’s doing there. That feels especially true when the album leaves off more incisive recent tracks, such as the previously partially leaked title song (on which Donda West is heard reciting lyrics from KRS-One’s “Sound of Da Police”) and last year’s potent protest single “Wash Us in the Blood”—which had an incredible video by the great Black visual artist Arthur Jafa, who had previously used Life of Pablo’s instant classic “Ultralight Beam” to soundtrack his 2016 masterwork, Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death. You could argue that each of those tracks is old news, but that didn’t prevent West from including the at least 3-year-old (again, leaked in a snippet) “Hurricane,” messing with it enough that a lot of the listeners felt he’d stripped away its original magic. I think the song still works, but it does feel far from its potential.
And that’s doubly true for promising sketches such as “Remote Control,” with its video-game-gun-blasts soothed by a snatch of pretty whistling, but utterly throwaway lyrics; the very pretty “Moon,” which is entirely layered Don Toliver vocals, an interlude of haunting alienation and/or maybe West literally wanting to join all the other billionaires who’ve recently gone to space; “I Know God Breathed on This,” whose intense bass and vocal samples have big Yeezus energy but, again, extremely undercooked Kanye verses; and Jesus Is King–era leftover “No Child Left Behind,” which sounds like no more than half of a could-be-good song. But also, hold on a damn minute—is that last title some kind of apologetic reach-around to George W. Bush, citing the name of his signature education policy to make up for West famously having declared on live TV after Hurricane Katrina that Bush didn’t care about Black people?
There’s a wittier reference to that moment in West’s back-and-forth with Pusha T on the draft album’s second track, when West cites Don McLean (or maybe Madonna) with, “My, my, my, Miss American Pie,” and Pusha counters, “[You] was a hero after Katrina, but that levee went dry.”* It’s one of the record’s very few real LOL moments, and, like Jay-Z’s red-cap line, a wink to the questions hanging over West’s head about where his true loyalties lie. But it’s also juxtaposed with gorgeous choral refrains about the kingdom, the power, and the glory. And gorgeous choral refrains, or the interestingly interwoven textures built out of them, are among the many musical reasons that your ears should still be given an opportunity to immerse in Donda, like Jesus Is King before it—whenever Donda finally comes, that is. Definitely don’t come for the beats, as usually understood—drum sounds are conspicuously missing from many of the tracks. But this is still a Kanye West album and, however diminished he is from past powers and glories, the studio is still a kingdom he rules better than almost anyone in pop music. That’s why someone as savvy—and as sacrilegious in his current cheeky ways—as Mr. Satan Shoes himself, Lil Nas X, wants West in the control room for a song like “Industry Baby.”
And who knows? Maybe West will tweet today that “Ima fix Donda.” There are a lot of other parts of his life and actions that may be beyond repair. But this, he could still do.
Correction, July 23, 2021: This article originally misspelled Don McLean’s last name.