Once upon a time, I had a job. Specifically, I had a job as a music journalist. Back then, then being June of 2013, this meant that occasionally, I’d get to do ridiculously cool stuff, which almost made up for the fact that I made $28,000 a year in New York City and had to write a million blog posts a day about some new Rick Ross song and/or some band that whose drummer’s cousin was friends with an executive at the media company where I worked (or whatever).
One day, I got an email out of the blue summoning me to a random address in Chelsea, where there was going to be a listening party that night for Kanye West’s then-unreleased album Yeezus. The random address in Chelsea turned out to be a big loading dock that West’s people had rented out; they’d opened up the big garage doors and when music played out of the speakers the sound reflected off of the concrete walls — the effect was kind of like what happens when you stick your phone in a bowl to make its speaker louder. I remember looking around and seeing Busta Rhymes, Jay Z, and Travis Scott. At one point, Beyonce walked past me and I tweeted about it.
Kanye was there behind a table with his laptop and a microphone, through which he gave a speech declaring himself a revolutionary. He then took a swig from a bottle of what was very clearly Grey Goose vodka with the label covered up by orange tape, and pressed play on the record. The volume was so loud that my brain couldn’t really process what I was hearing, but regardless, I recall being very confident that the vibrations rattling around my skull were absolutely genius.
Today, I don’t have a job, there are like 15 full-time music journalists left in the entire country, and basically the only musician who has listening parties for their albums anymore is Kanye West. While label budgets have largely shrunk thanks to the razor-thin margins imposed upon the industry by streaming services, Kanye’s events were proof that money was a fiction way before people started getting rich off NFTs.
For 2016’s The Life of Pablo, he packed out Madison Square Garden for a livestream in which he debuted the record as well as a fashion line seemingly inspired by the clothes the characters in the Matrix movies wore when they weren’t in the Matrix. When it was time to launch ye in 2018, he chartered private jets to fly a bunch of people out to Wyoming for a party in a barn where Jonah Hill made this face. The next year, he took the party on the road, and also turned the party into church, because, like Bob Dylan in the ’80s, he was now officially all-in on evangelical Christianity.
In the run-up to Donda, his latest album, which came out on Sunday, August 29, Kanye truly outdid himself. First, he temporarily moved into Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium to work on the record by day and play it for the public by night. After that, he relocated to Soldier Field in Chicago, where he erected a model of his childhood home and then held a final listening event for Donda during which he appeared to set himself on fire, maybe remarried his ex-wife Kim Kardashian in front of the crowd, and definitely brought out DaBaby and Marilyn Manson to stand around on the porch of said model of his childhood home, which, just, Jesus Christ. (Radar Online reports that Kanye tried to get Donald Trump to come onstage alongside Manson and DaBaby, which seems like such an unfathomably bad idea that I instinctively buy it.)
For the past few years, Kanye has, as the kids say, been kind of trash. ye was not very good. Neither were the songs leaked from Yandhi, ye’s ultimately shelved 2018 follow-up. And while Jesus Is King was fine, Kanye had just spent the past couple years being super into Donald Trump so people weren’t exactly feeling charitable towards him. By the time the summer of 2020 rolled around, it was the pandemic and Kanye was running for president with the help of some shady Republican operatives, and although his campaign consisted of little more than some social media posts and a bizarre rally in Charleston, S.C. during which he yelled at people while wearing a bulletproof vest, I think we can all agree that it definitely wasn’t the time for that shit. After that, he hid from his then-wife, Kim Kardashian, in a Wyoming bunker, got divorced, received a wellness check from Dave Chappelle, and evidently tried to make an album so good that it would wipe his slate clean in the eyes of the public.
And despite all of the, er, “public baggage” associated with Kanye and Donda itself, it took less than a day for the album to hit No. 1 on the Apple Music charts in 130 countries. Given that Apple Music is available in 167 countries, there’s a strong case to be made that Donda is currently the most popular piece of music on the planet. The fact that Kanye claimed on Instagram that his label, Universal, “PUT MY ALBUM OUT WITHOUT MY APPROVAL” and that the record was briefly taken down from the streaming service makes its success even more breathtaking.
Part of what’s going on here is that Donda is pretty good. It’s definitely the most coked-out sounding Christian record ever made, and as a producer, Kanye has regained the attention to detail and interest in sonic boldness that characterized the first decade and a half or so of his work. “Jesus Lord,” with a beatific verse from Jay Electronica and compassionate, self-reflective raps from Kanye himself, is a highlight, and its sequel, “Jesus Lord pt. 2,” which enlists the Lox, fresh off of a canonizing Verzuz performance against Dipset, is even better.
On “New Again,” Yeezy drops a classic Kanye groaner of a line in, “Keep your mask on and keep your hanitized” before the synths begin pulsing in and out, their silence becoming percussive.“Off the Grid” finds Fivio Foreign, a fixture of the New York Drill scene, delivering the absolute verse of his life among a minefield of bass stabs, while the beat for the Young Thug-featuring “Remote Control” is a work of perpetual motion, flutes and chords and claps and Daft Punk-style voices slithering in and out of the mix.
Once again, Kanye has created a record with so many layers that other hip-hop producers will spend next few months spinning off little bits of it into subgenres unto themselves. If the best Kanye albums are characterized by their ability to bring about a sea change in how hip-hop sounds, then on some level, Donda is an artistic success.
But this is Kanye we’re talking about here, and nothing related to Kanye can ever be that straightforward. In his Instagram post accusing his label of dropping Donda without his sign-off, Kanye further alleged that Universal “BLOCKED” the song “Jail pt 2,” aka the one that DaBaby and Marilyn Manson are on, from being on the record. And when I first opened up Donda’s page on Spotify, the song was greyed out, indicating the track existed but was unavailable for streaming (for better or worse, it’s up now). Screenshots shared — and subsequently deleted — by Kanye also suggested that DaBaby’s management had tried to block his verse from appearing on the track, evidently against the will of DaBaby himself, indicating that somebody involved with the song realized that it was a terrible idea, which should offer us all some solace.
The fact that DaBaby’s verse compares the criticism he drew for making homophobic/HIV-disinformation-filled comments to being in actual jail on a song also featuring Marilyn Manson, who is being sued by multiple women for sexual and emotional abuse and is also being investigated by the Los Angeles sheriff’s department for allegedly committing domestic violence, is so self-evidently fucked up that the song’s existence will undoubtedly have the opposite effect that West probably hoped it would. The message of the track is that everyone is capable of earning forgiveness, which is a point worth making. But DaBaby’s verse doesn’t indicate he’s actively seeking redemption through bettering himself and atoning for his words and actions as much as he seems to think he automatically deserves it, and as for Marilyn Manson, the dude’s definitely just going to Hell at this point. Then again, Kanye’s the same guy who once tweeted, “BILL COSBY INNOCENT” with ten exclamation points, so he’s never exactly been a sterling judge of character.
Donda is about redemption, or at least about Kanye’s hope that he could make an album so good it would make millions of people like him again. And if nothing else, the album and its success exist as a challenge to the notion that popular artists must be relatable, coherent, ethical, or even responsible to succeed. On the one hand, maybe it’s proof that we can engage with art, and even enjoy parts of it, while being justifiably upset with other parts of it, and even be upset with the person who created it and the work of art itself. On the other, maybe it just suggests that we live in an irrevocably broken society where bad people can do whatever they want as long as they never admit to any wrongdoing whatsoever.
This is a complicated subject, and it’s one that particularly suits Kanye. Throughout his career, he’s acted in such bizarre and unpalatable ways that it’s almost like he intentionally makes people hate him so that he can win them back to him with his music. But as the cultural sphere that Kanye has helped shape for two decades has evolved, so have the metrics by which we judge those who profit from it, and the past few years have seen a sea change in accountability. Kanye may have squeaked one past the goalie this time around, but it’s only a matter of time until we all want him to go away again. Lord knows what’ll happen after that.
Drew Millard has written for The New York Times, Vice, The New Republic, and The Outline and is currently working on a book about golf.