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The live-action soap opera of Kanye West's album Donda

‘Donda’ seems fittingly representative of its creator, with moments of brilliance wrapped up in a performative display of defiance and arrogant self-indulgence

Cover art for Kanye West’s new album, ‘Donda’.
Cover art for Kanye West’s new album, ‘Donda’.

In a 2013 interview with music journalist Sway Calloway, Kanye West infamously declared: “I am Warhol. I am the number one most impactful artist of our generation. I am Shakespeare in the flesh.” That comparison to Andy Warhol drew indignant dismissals at the time, just another example of the unfathomable arrogance and ego of the “world’s biggest rock star”. But think about it for a second and it makes a lot of sense.

Much like Warhol’s “factory”, West has spent the past few years surrounding himself with young talent, more master orchestrator than lone auteur. He has turned his life into an orchestrated performance of celebrity, constantly blurring the lines between art and artifice. You can see his entire career through this lens—the constant courting of controversy, the amalgamation of commerce and art, even his abortive presidential run—as a wildly successful example of Warholian “business art”. If Warhol was an “economist of attention”, as scholar Richard A. Lanham argues in his 2006 book The Economics Of Attention, West is its most successful venture capitalist.

All this was in evidence during the chaotic, headline-grabbing and occasionally frustrating roll-out of Donda, the rapper-producer-svengali’s 10th studio album, named after his late mother. Over three sold-out stadium events, West turned his frantic will-he-won’t-he album completion process into a grand performance. Each event featured a different iteration of the album, as West chopped features, hustled collaborators into sending in new verses, and went on creative tangents with the frenzy of a grad student with a dissertation due next week.

But the music was just one part of the live-action soap opera that is a Kanye West album launch. Kim Kardashian—who is divorcing West—paraded around in a wedding dress. Marilyn Manson, accused of several counts of rape, and DaBaby, under fire for recent homophobic comments, joined West on stage, an apparent rogues gallery of the “cancelled”. For the third event, West built a replica of his childhood home in the stadium and then set it—and himself—on fire. And all this was relentlessly monetised—the second event alone netted him $7 million (around 51 crore). Fans can pay $200 to access a “stem player” that lets them remix the record’s tracks.

Add a convenient rap beef with Drake (whose new album cover coincidentally also channels Warhol), a couple of Instagram rants accusing his label of releasing the album without his consent, and the bizarre political statements of the last few years, and you have the perfect storm of monetisable, self-mythologising celebrity hype. The music of Donda almost seems like an afterthought. Which is a pity. Because somewhere within the meandering 27-track, 109-minute soundscape lie the makings of a truly brilliant album, one that explores the contradictions between his faith and his upbringing, and his role as the world’s most famous billionaire provocateur.

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Not that Donda is a bad album by any measure. It might even be his best since 2013’s Yeezus. West is still a masterful curator of the pop zeitgeist, bringing in some of the most exciting voices in contemporary music and putting them in musical situations that—for the most part—inspire brilliance.

Many of the album’s most evocative moments come from the guest artists. Roddy Ricch brings gut-wrenching emotion to Pure Souls with the refrain “the truth is only what you get away with, huh?”, an accusatory finger pointed at West’s detractors. The Weeknd’s elegiac vocals add a haunted gospel counterpoint to Hurricane’s ruminations on reconciling faith with a life lived in the service of consumerist hedonism. And while Jay-Z’s hurriedly written verse on Jail isn’t his best—he casually absolves West’s Trump flirtations with the line “Told him, ‘Stop all of that red cap, we goin’ home’”—there is still an undeniable thrill when he utters the words, “This might be the return of the throne.”

West also remains thematically ambitious. The album is not just a tribute to his mother, best friend and former “momager”, it also touches on his newfound commitment to Christianity—which inspired the 2018 gospel album Jesus Is King—and the public collapse of his marriage with Kim Kardashian. But while there are some moments of self-reflection and insight, West rarely digs deeper, hiding behind his indelible pop hooks and attempted conceptual complexity.

So for every Jesus Lord, a raw examination of his mother’s loss, drug addiction and mental illness, you get moments like the industrial hymn God Breathed, which features West repeating “I know God breathed on this” like the mantra of a gospel of prosperity televangelist.

But more than the lack of focus and depth, what derails the album is West’s dilution of this self-assessment with cynical provocations, like Jail, Pt. 2, which features DaBaby and Manson, turning it from a track about a traffic stop into a “cancelled” men pity-party. Tally up the presence of other known abusers on the features list, the almost complete lack of women collaborators, and even the relatively limited presence of his mother, and Donda starts to seem like an album being pulled apart by the many contradictions that make up Kanye West. Perhaps, in that sense, it is fittingly representative of its creator—with its moments of creative and rhetorical brilliance, wrapped up in a performative display of misguided defiance and arrogant self-indulgence.

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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