Ready or not, Donda has finally been published. One of the most positive initial receptions of a Kanye project in a decade has left plenty of dust to settle on the constant discussion of whether the album would even be released at all. So was it all for show, or is Kanye’s increasing variable workload and turbulent perfectionism genuinely impeding his ability to release music?
A brief recap:
On May 25th, 2020, cinematographer Arthur Jafa gave the first hint of a new Kanye West recorded sound project, God’s Country, that he was working on a music video for. This video arrived July 1st with a song, Wash Us in the Blood, alongside confirmation of God’s Country. Seventeen days later the project was now titled Donda and to be released July 24th; however by the 25th all we had was this artwork:
Coming from Pierre-Louis Auvray, whose futurist airbrush style is typically used in fashion; but having collaborated previously with Yeezy x GAP creative director Mowalola Ogunlesi, he was commissioned for the piece despite inexperience in the medium.
Disrupted by the pandemic and Kanye’s presidential campaign, the Donda project was seemingly shelved until March 2021, when Cyhi the Prynce confirmed studio work had begun again. In July, Consequence shared a video of Tyler, the Creator and Kanye in the studio, hinting at a late 2021 release.
Soon after, word got out that a listening party was booked at Mercedes-Benz stadium in Atlanta, the heavy speculation that it would be for Donda soon confirmed by frequent collaborator, business partner and personal friend Pusha T, who had been invited to a private listening event in Las Vegas the night before.
At this time a revised album cover surfaced:
An adapted work of Lousie Bourgeois from her late career multimedia series: Les têtes bleues et les femmes rouges (The blue heads and the red women).
The next day, Beats Electronics used part of an unreleased Kanye song in a commercial during the 2021 NBA finals; followed immediately by confirmation from Ye’s distributor Def Jam that Donda would release July 23rd after the listening party, nearly a year to the day after the original date. Attendees of the event reported the work sounded like it was still in the demo stage and finished abruptly, the album again failing to materialize would mark the beginning of a period where the project hung in the balance. Kanye took up residence in one of the stadium’s locker rooms, converting it into a studio and working with producer Mike Dean recording guest verses on location and making updates. A second listening event arrived, with increased aural quality and stage production, featuring choreographed dancers and Kanye ascending to the top of the stadium in a harness. Notably, Kanye could be spotted on his phone during the performance, sending notes to producers on updates he wanted as they occurred to him. Release dates were posted on streaming services, but were proven as placeholders when each time one approached, it would be pushed back to the next week. Social media posts from Ye’s circle constantly gave the impression it was ready for release.
Mike Dean, at first reposting memes about the unusual situation, eventually became frustrated at the clamoring for information and left the ‘toxic air’ of the stadium in private; only revealing so days after the second event at around the same time that Kanye was spotted in LA. The stadium had served its purpose, and the reportedly million dollar per day residency had come to an end with a pause in the project, but not for too long.
A third listening party was announced much closer to home, at Soldier Field stadium in Chicago on August 29th. Yet again, this felt like ‘the one’, why else travel back to Chicago? Hype quickly flared again, as Ye’s manager Bu Thiam stated on Twitter the album would “100%” drop after the event; and drone shots indicated Kanye was having a replica of his childhood home constructed as a set piece in the centre of the stadium. Despite the typical hour or two delay, the party arrived. Aside from the lack of live vocal performance, the event more resembled a high production stadium tour more than a mere preview. For nearly two hours Kanye and guests brooded in and around the house situated on a large dirt hill. Surrounded by security and choreographed participants, concepts came to life, culminating in an impressive pyrotechnics display as Kanye was immolated and calmly walked out of the arena. Having been extinguished, he was met by his recently divorced wife Kim Kardashian in a wedding gown and veil, Kanye visibly grinning as the live stream ended. They immediately left the stadium together holding hands.
The next 48 hours swung between certainty and surrender as fans scoured and refreshed looking for any information. Once confirmation came through that the album had been submitted to be distributed to streaming services, the armchair experts arrived to analyse exactly how long it might take to be available. The hold up became legal rather than technical as screenshots from Kanye emerged that it couldn’t drop until DaBaby‘s manager cleared his guest verse, but the rapper himself was found to be unaware of the problem. Ye refused to relent, claiming DaBaby was the only one to publicly state he would vote for Kanye for president.
However a release time soon came, and even sooner finally proved correct as the album arrived to stream; Kanye immediately claiming Universal had dropped it without his permission, bringing genuine worry that it may even be taken down. Indeed, the album notably uses no artwork for the cover, provided with a plain black square.
So was all the drama for show? For promotion? Or is it all a glimpse into the convoluted process Ye goes through to make music, no less the highly personal project named after his late mother and expounding his faith.
Some insight may be gained from this artwork that Kanye posted to Instagram during the rollout:
This Damien Hirst work features a dove preserved in formaldehyde. A popular interpretation is that it represents preservation as futile, when that preservation inherently destroys the aspects of the object you want to save. With the album being named after his late mother, the implication is that the project could never be published without marring the personal memory of Donda West. If everything is impermanent, why immortalize anything permanently? The lack of a Donda album artwork may be relevant here too, why muddy up the message with a visual interpretation? The plain black cover shows all it needs, letting the music speak more for itself.
While it certainly feels like each Kanye rollout gets bigger and messier, I think there is something to be said of the influence of the internet and the role of social media in processing information changing this feeling, as Kanye has always been late. Tracks from his debut, The College Dropout leaked pre-release, so he decided to hold it back to rework it, ending up taking 193 days. In the years since, more of his projects have been late than not, with the exception of the one other directly influenced by the death of his mother, 808s & Heartbreak, arriving a day early.
A notable example is 2016’s The Life of Pablo. Initially only available as a Tidal exclusive, this period seemed more experiment than drop, with tracks being added and mixes being updated while the public was listening. It had a raw, organic existence until finally it was allowed on other platforms, the afterthoughts relaxed a little and he let it become solid. This is perhaps key to why it was never released on physical formats, where do you draw a line in the sand to say ‘this is the version we need to press into vinyl’? Given Kanye’s famous erratic mental state in this period, it must not have been an easy time to commit to a master to be physically etched into a plate, to press records in a very large and expensive machine.
An interesting example of one that wasn’t late, is 2013’s Yeezus. Icon producer Rick Rubin was famously brought in three weeks before the last possible submission to help consolidate more than three hours of partially finished tracks. Two days before submission, Kanye was due to fly to Milan and yet five of the tracks still didn’t have vocals recorded, so in just two hours Ye ‘scored 40 points in the last quarter’ and nailed the vocals on his way out.
Clearly he thrives in the pressure of having a date set; always having some expectation to work against; and when it’s not enough, a delay raises the stakes to push things along to another level.
It’s no secret that Kanye has had significant mental health struggles, and self empowerment in coming through these struggles has been a strong theme through all his music since the opening track of his first album, the neurodiversity anthem We Don’t Care.
A factor in this is his Bipolar disorder diagnosis and medication, which he asserts interferes with his creative process enough to justify not taking it. Kanye himself is more likely to refer to this state as ‘his superpower’, while sometimes tumultuous it must feel impossible to extricate his achievements from this reality of existence, and is a factor that can’t be escaped, medication or not.
For over twenty years Kanye West has been big in the music industry, performatively expressing his mental actuality. This actuality is deeply ingrained in his achievements, so why do we still have the need to ask ourselves if it is ‘real’?
Is the instability part of the performance? As far as it always has been, of course it is. In fact it’s even proven necessary, but only when we as fans ask it of him; if it didn’t work it wouldn’t happen. It is by now tried and true, repeatable and increasingly successful.
Take Jesus Is King as an example, time will tell if it gets cemented as Kanye’s least popular and least praised work. By no means a bad album, it is as successful as it is controversial. It has a very clear, simple aim, to make music for God. This goal is easily satisfied and nothing more, reflected in the clear and simple sound; Ye’s sounds are usually progressive and boundary pushing, but the biggest boundary JIK breaks is that very expectation of controversy. Conversely, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the most often picked as the best Kanye West album, no surprise it’s rooted in the most controversy. Kanye’s crashing the stage during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech is likely his most flagrant, arrogant act and caused the biggest drop in public perception he has ever had. His only choice to recover his career, and his ability to express his struggle was to meticulously craft an album so good that it simply couldn’t be ignored.
Next time you find yourself questioning Kanye West’s motives, take comfort in knowing that the question is its own answer. As long as we are here to question him, he will be there with an even bigger and better answer.
You may not believe that Kanye is, or might become the greatest artist of all time, but you can be certain that he does; and funnily enough that disbelief that he can is exactly what he needs to do it.