Grief, faith and music: Kanye West’s Donda ★★★★☆
October 12 2021, by Ignazio Rizzini-Bisinelli
When talking about modern hip hop music, few words conjure more controversy than the words ‘Kanye West’. To some, he is a musical genius, the Beethoven of modern music, ‘hip hop’s messiah’ as he was labelled in 2004, following the release of his album ‘The College Dropout’. To others, he is an insufferable loudmouth, little more than a madman desperate for the spotlight.
Kanye Omari West was born in Atlanta on June 8th, 1977, moving early in his life to Chicago with his mother. He started writing poetry and music very young, rapping Dr. Seuss books, and performing for family. At thirteen he met producer ‘No I.D’ who would become a close friend and mentor, teaching him how to sample and produce beats. Receiving a scholarship to study at Chicago’s American Academy of Art, and later Chicago State University, West quickly realised that academic study was suppressing his passion for music. At the age of twenty, he dropped out of college, much to the displease of his mother who was a professor of English there. His album ‘The College Dropout’ is about having the courage to embrace who you are, your flaws and your shortcomings, rather than following societal norms.
Throughout West’s years of making music, he has always been on the forefront of experimentation and stylistic diversity; he has meddled with both rap, RnB, and gospel, all of which are heard in his latest album, ‘Donda’ (named after his mother, who died in 2007). The album focuses on themes of Christianity, common in Kanye’s music since ‘Jesus Walks’, and the way in which his mother shaped him, talking about his childhood and how his faith came to play a part in everything he does. ‘Donda’ is a celebration of his mother’s life and of God, and the artistic choices Kanye makes prove this album to be a lot more than simply music. Leading up to the release, there were three different listening parties, each set on different scenes. ‘Donda’ was finally released to an impatient crowd on August 29th, 2021.
The album opens with ‘Donda Chant’, a track consisting only of the name ‘Donda’ repeated fifty-eight times, a reference to Donda West’s age when she died. The name is also repeated in a very particular pattern, symbolic of her heartbeat during her passing. This could be figurative of Kanye’s thoughts, repetitive and fixated on his mother. It also shows his grief, all these years later, and the track is designed to get the listener into the right headspace and mood before listening to the album.
The second track on the album is the song ‘Jail’ featuring Jay-Z. The song features an ostinato playing two quavers of a distorted bass on the first and last beat of the first bar in a 2-bar loop, and a melodic ‘dirty synth’ which plays another ostinato, focused around E, F# and G#. Apart from the second ostinato serving as a sort of drone, there is nothing else in the beat, already making the song somewhat unique – a typical hip-hop song would have a drumline as well as an 808 or bass line.
Effects are used frequently, in a way unique to West’s entire musical output. His use of autotune is very much obvious and deliberately striking, and his voice is altered throughout the song to match the message. The song is about relationships, both personal relationships with God and romantic relationships. The first verse talks on the surface about a mugging, seeming to plead them to ‘take everything’, but later refers to having to ‘change his number’. This implies that he is talking to a partner and not an attacker, and is begging her to take what she wants and let him be. There is then the juxtaposition of ‘I’ll be honest, we’re all liars’ where he references the music industry and being a celebrity, speaking about how not everything is always as it seems. Jay-Z’s verse is a lot more spiritual, speaking of God and directly talking to Donda and comparing himself and Kanye to biblical figures. The song is a good representation of the album as a whole – it features verses talking about Jesus and verses talking about West himself, and the mix of these two things, along with the innovative beats of the songs, make this album something that is at once irrepressibly unique.
‘Moon’, featuring Kid Cudi and Don Toliver, is a song about healing and moving on that evokes an equally startling sound world. We start with the chorus, which consists of all 3 artists singing ‘I wanna go to the moon’, expressing their desires to be in a better place yet unable or not knowing how to get there: ‘How do I get through?’ In the verse Kid Cudi sings about a time where he was heavily addicted to alcohol, and he reminisces over wanting to be a better person. He is then grateful of being where he is today and sings of appreciation of his luck and his success. The song ends with the chorus, and with the artists letting go of their regrets. This song serves as a sort of respite in an otherwise quite hectic album – the F, Gm, Am and Bb chords are played with a sort of ethereal feel, as if we were floating. This is embellished by the melody which consists of a main motif of a descending pattern going from Bb to A to F to C before moving back up to an A, G, and then a final descending pattern from Bb to A to F to C (repeated twice). These elements, together with the synth that is used help to create a thick and warm texture, makes the song feel eminently homely and comforting.
Whether or not you like Kanye West or his music, it is impossible not to admit that the innovation in and of his music has helped define current musical culture. ‘Donda’ is a perfect example of a modern album; all the way from the pre-release listening parties to the final album, the excitement around this album has been second to none. The themes found throughout the album are representative of Kanye and of his struggle, both with his personal life and the failure of his marriage, and his mental health and his diagnosis of bipolar disorder. ‘Donda’ shows us that there is still hope if we learn to move on and accept our past. West is singing of a new hope and of his moving on, his departing from sorrow. He perhaps hopes to immortalise his grief, immortalise his faith, and most importantly, immortalise ‘Donda’.
Ignazio Rizzini-Bisinelli, U6
- Kanye West: Donda review (The Guardian)
- Donda – some gems among lots – and lots – of filler (NME)
- Donda – Kanye West searches for meaning (Rolling Stone)