Depending on your perspective, there is a scroll of words about as tall as the Yeezus Tour mountaintop that you can use to describe the boundless and creative, oftentimes baffling and – for better or worse – outspoken rapper and producer that is Kanye West. The one constant to everyone, as spoken over the loudspeakers at his listening party by his late mother and album namesake, Dr. Donda West, is that West will always be “decidedly different.”
In an all-red outfit and white mask covering his face that made him look like a cross between The Weeknd and Slenderman, West stepped out at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Arena to chants of “We want Ye” and took his place alone on an empty arena floor while the first notes of his tenth studio album played over the speakers. West is no stranger to live-streamed listening parties – his previous two, The Life of Pablo and Ye, took place in another arena and around a bonfire at his Wyoming ranch. Both times, however, West was surrounded by his friends and collaborators. While they weren’t there with him in the flesh this time around, over its runtime Donda revealed itself to be an album about finding comfort in faith and friendships during trying times. An entire track is dedicated to reassuring fans his relationship with Jay-Z, long rumoured to be fracturing due to West’s wilder pursuits in recent years, is still intact and going strong. Frequent collaborators like Pusha T, Travis Scott and of course, the Brooklyn legend himself appear across the album – Jay-Z for the first time on a West solo album since 2010.
Many fans agree that West’s best and most influential works, such as 808s and Heartbreak and the legendary My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, happen in times of strife for West, especially romantic. As the newfound family man goes through a divorce, West’s pain is translated into unstructured, tearful extended passages as he laments his losses and mistakes. One of West’s most celebrated musical moments is the outro to his 2010 track “Runaway,” where he somehow conveys so much emotion through an Auto-Tune filter so heavy you can barely make out the words. Many tracks on Donda are similar, but this time, there’s no filter to mask anything. Often standing still or kneeling in a prayer position in a spotlight that grew and shrank accordingly with the mood of the songs, West tossed aside his usual visual spectacle and let the raw emotional power of the music do all the work, singing to cinematic choirs and church organs. In a knockout punch moment, a recording of West’s mother instructing him to never abandon family is interspersed into a track where he sings about being fearful of losing his own, even speaking from the perspective of his children losing a father.
West never makes the same album twice, and the album’s most exciting moments came in its more upbeat side. Signalling a return of the madman producer capable of crafting a new sound that will be felt for years to come, West’s latest mind boggling combination is Playboi Carti-esque psychedelic trap and the most extravagant and shimmering of gospel sounds. This is more like what many fans were expecting when West announced a project called Jesus is King. West has never been much of a vocal chameleon, but it was often difficult to tell if it was him or a feature on a couple tracks. Still, when West is back to making goofy punchlines, his touch is undeniable. Thankfully, West’s distinctive personality is back in spades in his rapped verses, and his vow against profanity has seemingly expired. The hip-hop side is the only time West saw fit to move, often bouncing around and moving his arms as if he couldn’t restrain himself from performing his own tracks. At one point, he bounded across the full length of the arena and fell down to his knees, taking it all in. “It ain’t how it used to be,” he rapped. “This a new me, so get used to me.” Regardless of your feelings about West, that much is true. Whatever wild idea he has in mind, you’ll need to get used to it being just about everywhere, whether you hear it from him or creeping into the work of another artist just as transfixed by his next move.
By Stephan Boissonneault
With fresh folklore in abundance, the east coast songwriter’s sophomore offering is a classic tribute to his beloved province.