Kanye West has always been very self-involved. Ever since his first album, The College Dropout, he’s remained focused on one task — celebrating his own magnificence. And for a while, he was really good at the job. In the early stages of his career, it was easy to root for his solipsism because it played out as a winning underdog story: He was the slightly nerdy backpacker who rapped about Jesus and didn’t pretend he’d grown up with a hard-knock life, playing the cocky kid brother opposite heavyweights like Jay-Z. What made his debut and its follow-up, Late Registration, shine was that his belief in himself felt inspirational: If this smart, introspective, insecure guy could reach for the stars, maybe we could, too. He wasn’t peddling a gangster fantasy — he was just a regular Joe like you and me. Except massively more talented, of course.
Constantly wanting to prove to his doubters that he was a top-flight rapper — not just a world-beating producer — West has strived for excellence so obsessively that there’s been little room for anything else. Over nearly two decades of his music, he’s shown little interest in love songs — and when he did, like on his epochal 2008 breakup record 808s & Heartbreak, it’s notable that they were spiteful and displayed almost no curiosity about the woman who inspired the bulk of that album’s creation, his ex-fiancée Alexis Phifer. On 808s & Heartbreak, she wasn’t a fully-developed character — she’s a cipher, a symbol of his pain. (His albums are always about him.)
If anything, the record’s other departed woman, his mom Donda, exerts the stronger influence — her then-recent death seemed to leave a bigger impact. After all, she was easily the most important person in his life — the one who never betrayed him, the one who never stopped believing in him. For most of his career, Kanye West has taken on the world. Occasionally, he’d try to find someone (or something) who could fill the hole that self-loathing and mental illness have carved out of him. But more often than not, he’s been unsuccessful.
What’s beautiful and despairing and deeply frustrating about West’s long-awaited new album is that it represents the same compelling dynamic that’s been central to so much of his art: the need to be the best or else. But when you’ve scaled the mountain — and done it again and again — where else, exactly, can you go? When you listen to Donda, you’ll hear plenty of arresting music and insightful lyrical moments — you’d hope so for a 27-track, 109-minute album — but what’s inescapable is how empty that magnificence is. Back in 2008, he talked about what 808s & Heartbreak did for him, saying, “This album was therapeutic — it’s lonely at the top.” Well, things don’t sound any less lonely on Donda, although I’m not sure if there’s anything restorative in even its most transcendent moments. There are plenty of A-list guest stars popping up on the album, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone so shut off from the world, so trapped in his own celebrity and demons. On Donda, Kanye West stands alone. It’s such a deeply sad place to be.
I’m not someone who watches movie trailers — I’d rather go into a film cold so that nothing is ruined for me — and likewise I hadn’t paid much attention to reports of the listening parties that preceded Donda’s release. I knew the album was named after his departed mother, and that was about it. But I’ve been a fan of West’s for a while and kept up with his many dramas, so I wasn’t surprised by Donda’s lyrical themes: The (supposed) end of his marriage to Kim Kardashian, his continuing battles with mental health, his flirtation with Trumpism and his intensified devotion to God are all top of mind for the 44-year-old rapper. And much like his other recent work — specifically, The Life of Pablo and Ye — the tracks have a maximalist, intentionally erratic quality, almost as if he’s trying to recreate the up-and-down headspace of someone who’s in a bad place emotionally. “I’ve been feelin’ low for so long / I ain’t had a high in so long,” he testifies in the funereal, keyboard-driven “Come to Life,” later confessing, “I don’t wanna die alone / I don’t wanna die alone.” It’s one of Donda’s most unguarded moments, but even when he’s not speaking so overtly, the pain of loneliness infuses just about every moment of the record. This is the sound of a guy who’s not sure if anything can save him.
It’s not a surprise he’s so down in the mouth, despite the often euphoric, gospel-infused sound of the record. (His 2019 Christian-themed Jesus Is King definitely shares some musical DNA with Donda.) The freshness of his divorce proceedings from Kardashian is revealed on tracks like “Lord I Need You,” where he’s begging for God’s support while talking directly to Kim. (He paints a bleak picture of that failed marriage: “Too many complaints made it hard for me to think / Would you shut up? / I can’t hear myself drink.”)
Not since 808s & Heartbreak has one of his albums come out in the wake of such public anguish, and this long, sprawling record — complete with four alternate versions of songs that appear earlier on Donda — offers a full catalog of responses to that personal tumult. The slight “Junya” is a cocky flex, referencing fashion designer Junya Watanabe while bragging about how fly he is: “Let me be honest / Let me be honest / I won with the bucks, boy / Let me Giannis.” Meanwhile, on “Hurricane,” he’s laying bare the unhappiness of his seemingly amazing life, declaring, “Architectural Digest, but I needed home improvement / $60 million home / Never went home to it.” Sometimes, he samples his mother’s inspirational words for comfort. But, mostly, he turns to the Man Upstairs.
Kanye has been rapping about God since “Jesus Walks,” sometimes conflating himself with the Almighty. (On the 2013 Yeezus track “I Am a God,” he cheekily credited the song as “featuring God.”) More than Kardashian or his mom, West speaks to God on Donda — and when he’s not, he’s preaching the gospel about the importance of accepting Him as our personal savior. On the powerhouse nine-minute “Jesus Lord,” he repeatedly asks, “Tell me if you know someone that needs Jesus,” as the track aspires to the cathedral-like grandeur of “Runaway,” a more secular stripping down of ego to acknowledge his pain. Here, the desire for divine intervention is palpable, and the spiritual isolation is almost frightening in its intimacy:
God got you, the devil’s watchin’, he just peekin’ in
I know I madе a promise that I’d never let the reaper in
But lately, I’ve been losin’ all my deepest friends
And lately, I’ve been swimmin’ on the deepest end
At this point in his life, West seems to only have God to count on. Jay-Z, the Weeknd, Playboi Carti and Jay Electronica are among the high-profile names who contribute rhymes on Donda. (And that’s ignoring the album’s truly loathsome guest stars — specifically, Chris Brown, Marilyn Manson and DaBaby.) But there’s very little camaraderie on these tracks — no sense of back-and-forth rhyming inspired by a deep connection between the rappers. Rather, they sound like pricey hired guns utilized to make West’s sonically stunning songs even more stellar. They’re his showbiz associates — not true pals. For years, he’s been singing about the slowly stifling alienation that comes from stardom. But, tellingly, he doesn’t touch on the topic much on Donda: That reality is so self-evident that there’s no need to point it out.
Such a tacit acknowledgement places an unnerving chill over Donda. As much as the album is about rising above earthly pains, the transcendence doesn’t feel particularly warm or inspirational. It’s too self-centered — too self-pitying — to achieve true grace. Kanye is wounded on Donda, but he’s not particularly humble — which isn’t to say that his personal crises aren’t grippingly real. It’s just that, so many years removed from the joking, hustling striver we fell in love with on The College Dropout, he hasn’t transcended pain so much as he’s evolved beyond the common touch. His hymns to God, his complaints about celebrity, his feelings of betrayal: They all come from a man who no longer does anything human-sized. The lifelines have been cut, leaving Kanye to drift in the airless void of his own misery.
To be sure, his recordmaking skills remain unmatched — as a piece of pure music, Donda will often astonish you. Even its excesses and alternate versions are full of strengths. But the album feels like the logical end point of the trajectory that started with 808s & Heartbreak, where he first chose to address his personal pain by making ambitiously extreme music that echoed his dark, twisted psyche. Each album since has pushed further and further, often dazzlingly. Donda is named for his mother, but it’s really about her absence — and the absence of anyone else close enough to him to make him whole again. Well, at least anyone on this earthly plain. “God’s not finished / God’s not finished,” he chants at one point, holding out hope that his maker still has plans for him. Back on “Jesus Walks,” he lamented, “I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid ‘cause we ain’t spoke in so long.”
For Kanye West’s sake, I pray He replies — the man desperately needs a friend.