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In more recent years, popular culture has associated college campuses as places averse to figures and concepts with controversial backgrounds, inflammatory personalities, or what some perceive as politically incorrect and anti-social justice sentiments. While that claim has experienced some overreaction by conservative news outlets, pundits, and comedians, it is safe to say that many college campuses are not in favor of supporting individuals or groups with ties to Donald Trump and/or persons accused of sexual assault or anti-LGBTQ+ behavior. With that logic in hand, it makes it all the more subversive that Kanye West’s new album Donda has caused so many college students to engage with the 44 year old’s 10th album; a record that focuses on West’s relationship with God, his marital struggles, and, like every Kanye West album, himself. However, Donda attempts to look at the artist known as Ye and Yeezus in a different light than previous albums.
At face value, Donda utilizes the sounds and concepts from Ye’s previous works and slams them together to create new sounds out of familiar ones, whether it be the gospel stylings from Jesus Is King, the rock-based electric guitar and powerful percussion from Kids See Ghosts, or the angry, reflective but egotistical lyrics and vocals from The Life of Pablo and Ye. When a Kanye fan listens to "24", the track is likely going to remind them of gospel music with the echoing choir and organ-backed melody, but the pitching and distortion of the singers’ voices and the mixing invokes memories of moments from Yeezus, which is compelling because of how diametrically opposed these albums are in terms of content and themes (While recording Jesus Is King, Kanye West asked that singers abstain from premarital sex; on Yeezus he included a track called "I am A God"). Donda does not seem to even take notice of such musical and conceptual contradictions, and that disregard of such fundamental principles of mass-appeal art by West forms truly thought-provoking music, even if it means Ye is participating in extreme hypocrisy.
The fourteenth track, "Heaven and Hell", is a perfect summarization of the double-sided nature of Donda, a track that opens with a distorted, high pitched sample from the 1975 song "Heaven and Hell is on Earth", then delving into both a condemnation and appreciation of wealth, before transitioning to a call to “burn false idols, Jesus’ disciples”, and other calls to the Lord, culminating in Kanye making gunshot noises leading to instrumentals. That summary is without a doubt an oversimplification of what Kanye West is trying to convey, but it is representative of the erratic, complicated mixture of concepts displayed in each song. Only Kanye West could compare himself to Bezos and Jesus in the same song, and only Kanye West could make it sensical and not completely repulsive.
Most of the album is like Heaven and Hell, filled with hypocrisy, contradictions, callouts, and calls to praise God. These themes are so powerful (especially to college-age listeners) because it feels realistic, imperfect and sensitive (adjectives not typically associated with Kanye West’s music), with Ye usually focusing on his life and experiences in a very egocentric, self-appeasing fashion. While Kanye still shows some of that self-centeredness, he feels weak and open in many of the tracks, and he accomplishes that without disregarding his musical past, instead relying on those sounds. This perception of Kanye is not detached from his previous works; rather, it is dependent on them. "Believe What I Say" and "Lord I Need You" rely on West displaying himself as weak and dependent whilst also attempting to tell the listener to be wary of his rich and famous lifestyle, and in addition to all of that, seemingly condemning his estranged wife and referencing intimate details in the process, such as with the lines,
“Too many complaints made it hard for me to think
Remember, this is the same album that has the chorus “Tell me if you know someone that needs Jesus”.
Donda may present itself as a dark and complex work, and the previously mentioned tracks all call on a certain darkness and combination of thematic elements, but that does not keep the album from being extremely corny. A lot of these lyrics stick out and can even trip up some of the songs, but for the most part they act as reminders of the genuine nature of Donda and the overall positive image the songs possess. More importantly, lyrics like “best collab since Taco Bell and KFC”, “hi with a bunch of I’s”, “You had a Benz at sixteen, I could barely afford an Audi”, and “Some say Adam could never be black ‘cause a black man’ll never share his rib” remind the listener that Kanye is still Kanye; he may be showing a somewhat different, more confusing perspective of himself, but he is still the creator of The College Dropout, still the man that made "Bound 2".
On Donda, Kanye is not alone in his mixture of religiousness, political commentary, corny jokes, and humble brags. Donda is chock-full of features by some of the most decorated and famous artists on the planet, with verses by Jay-Z, Travis Scott, Kid Cudi, Fivio Foreign, Playboi Carti, Don Toliver, The Weeknd, and Jay Electronica, to name a few. Kanye continues to bring the best out of his features, enhancing all of the tracks and showing enhanced versions of these talented artists, making it clear why so many musicians choose to work with West. "Off The Grid" is essentially a spotlight on Fivio Foreign that will undoubtedly lead to whatever he drops next being greatly anticipated. All of the guest artists create a momentum to the album, never slowing down and instead acting as catalysts for ye’s music, with the artists’ energy bouncing off each other to invigorate the listener. There is a dark side to the features, that being the controversy surrounding the inclusion of DaBaby, Marilyn Manson, and Chris Brown, artists experiencing backlash in media and culture for obvious reasons (DaBaby’s homophobic rant, Marilyn Manson’s rape and abuse allegations, Chris Brown’s history of domestic abuse), and these artists’ inclusion, even when minor in the case of Manson or major with Chris Brown, furthers how representative Donda is of Kanye West.
Ye is a habitual line stepper, a MAGA hat-wearing devil’s advocate who will say George Bush doesn’t care about black people as well as that slavery was a choice. And college kids understand that, not because they agree with Kanye’s words or think what he is saying is inherently truthful, more just that he is constantly willing to be himself to a fault, and that is something so powerful on college campuses where there are feelings of insecurity and students scared to confess their own opinions. That environment makes Donda intoxicating; it touches the soul of young adults because they feel like they are just beginning to experience an inundating level of indoctrination, groupthink, and loss of identity. It is the only album that addresses spiritualism while embracing narcissism, openly praising God, talking about the prison industrial complex, cancel culture, and Junya Watanabe. It is confusing, it is powerful, it is contradictory, and it is how it feels to go to college, at least to me. ●
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