Kanye West’s ‘Donda’ Era, on a Chaotic Stage

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This continues on the album itself, which is 27 tracks long, nearly two hours of music; it is sonically cohesive but also overlong and full of heavily assembled songs — multiple producers and writers, a bounty of male guests. West has long been shifting into conductor mode, and on several songs here, he is the ballast but not the focus.

Jay Electronica has a commanding verse on “Donda.” Fivio Foreign has a great verse on “Donda.” Lil Baby has a very good verse on “Donda.” Lil Durk has a striking verse on “Donda.” Sheek Louch, who sounds like he’s been mainlining Ka records, has an excellent verse on “Donda.” Jay-Z has a decent verse on “Donda.” Westside Gunn has a lovely verse on “Donda.”

West, though? Fewer than you’d think. The more you listen for West on “Donda,” the less you really hear him. The more fragmentary the lyrics are, the less satisfying they are.

But what keeps him from being a shadow presence on his own album is his ear for hooks, the way he can distill one quick phrase — be it a goof, a talking-to or an exultation — into something utterly sticky. “I know God breathed on this.” “He’s done miracles on me.” “Is to lay me or play me a bigger flex though?”

West has long wielded the voices of others to amplify his own — this has been true at least since the Hawaii sessions that birthed “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” one of his essential albums. As he’s become less of a full-time musician and more of a polymath who sometimes makes music, that tendency has grown, getting perhaps its purest expression just before the start of the pandemic, when the majority of his music-making came in the form of live performances of the Sunday Service Choir, a gospel troupe he assembled and directed but rarely contributed vocals to. At that point, it seemed as if West might be permanently decentering himself, or at least using his success primarily as a launching platform for others.

The “Donda” era realigns things, more in keeping with how West released “The Life of Pablo” and “Ye,” his last pre-gospel albums. There are, at the moment, at least four versions of “Donda” — the official one released on streaming services (though there’s no guarantee that one’s not in flux), and the ones West played at each of his listening events.


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