President-elect Donald Trump and Kanye West stand together in the lobby at Trump Tower, December 13, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump opened his administration on an unusually (but appropriately) bleak note. Surveying the decline ongoing all over the nation, the new president promised better days ahead.
Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories, scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge, and the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
It didn’t. Though the Trump admin made some small steps toward national restoration, the hopes of those who had suffered under these decades of decay remained largely unfulfilled. When, at the end of his term, the president sought a victory lap, the best he could do was a lackluster speech at the one small portion of border wall he managed to erect. Mother and children still trapped in poverty, rusted out factories still scattered like tombstones. Education, crime, and drugs all exponentially worse than even five years ago. American carnage rolls on.
The usual explanation given for the failure of his presidency is personnel: By and large, Trump did not hire people with either the inclination or the ability to halt our national decline. This is true in part, but at the end of the day Donald Trump’s problem was always that he was Donald Trump. Besides, the president had surrounded himself with a great many solid people, who shared his gut instinct about our situation but had one talent or another that brought the vision a little farther than Trump could have alone. One such person, of course, was Kanye West.
West, like Trump, was a bundle of contradictions. He was the son of a college professor who would go on to become the greatest of a new generation of rappers, succeeding a cohort who had mostly been actual gangsters. He was a red-capped Trump supporter—one of the very few A-listers who could be so counted—who had warned the whole nation in 2005 that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He was the son of a Black Panther, the husband of a Kardashian, and a would-be right-wing politician who planned to model his White House on Wakanda. Perhaps above all, he was a philanderer and a profligate who had flirted for years with a bizarre and intensely personal brand of Christianity.
Then, in 2019, he took the plunge. Born again, West went all-in on life as a public Christian. He released a Gospel album, Jesus is King, that fall, to widespread acclaim from all who were not obstinately pagan. Two religious projects intervened, released on Christmas Day one year apart from each other, and of course there was a bid for the Oval Office, before his next full solo album, Donda—much delayed and much anticipated—finally started streaming last week.
Musically, Donda is more complex than Jesus is King, but that’s not altogether a good thing. The latter was a straightforward, easy, infectious listen; this one takes work, and time, to enjoy—not least because it runs almost two hours long. But it is also far more complex in substance: whereas Jesus is King dealt single-mindedly with the rapper’s newfound faith, Donda tries to bring that faith to bear on the trials of his tumultuous personal life and the chaotic world around him.
Though he does not chronicle the wreckage of American society circa 2021 with as much depth or nuance as a more worldly artist like Fantastic Negrito, or even a throwback lefty troubadour like Jason Isbell, the Christian lens through which he views calamity sets West’s work apart. An extended monologue by Larry Hoover Jr., son of the convicted gang leader whose cause West brought before President Trump, calls for Hoover Sr.’s release from prison. West highlights the younger Hoover’s claim that “the conditions in this capitalist society is what made [his father] and it is what made the children of today”—reminding us that Kanye was perhaps the first candidate in a century and a half to run for president with anything like “forty acres and a mule” in his campaign platform—before the final words (the same as the song’s title), redirect the plea for freedom to a higher authority than the president: “Jesus, Lord.”
The sincerity of the album’s Christian element is mostly beyond doubt, and sometimes even interesting. But at the end of the day, Kanye West’s problem is still that he’s Kanye West. Even in the midst of a dramatic, prolonged conversion, this is still the man who once ran a track titled “I Am a God” on an album called Yeezus. He hasn’t shaken his vices any more than Trump did, and it shows.
A handful of the tracks on Donda fall flat, but the only one that’s really awful is “Junya,” an aurally grating and morally obnoxious paean to the decadent, outré, aesthetically offensive fashion designer Junya Watanabe. It is Kanye at his worst: a narcissistic billionaire with an enduring attachment to the trappings of this world, and horrible taste in clothes to boot. But even this track—after taking a detour to diss Ye’s would-be rival Drake, who released an album of his own just yesterday—ends with an admission of West’s need for repentance: “Better find God ‘fore He find me / Tell the Devil good night, go to sleep.”
This is the core of Donda, and of the last few years of Kanye’s life: the tension between faith and ego, sometimes implicit, sometimes explosive. That tension is on full display in the refrain of “Hurricane,” one of the album’s stronger tracks. It begins with what might be a boast—“I can walk on water”—then leaves us, perhaps intentionally, wondering for a moment whether this is just megalomania (bordering on blasphemy) before it turns to prayer: “Father, hold me close, don’t let me drown /
I know you won’t.”
West’s fear of spiritual drowning, of course, is understandable given the course of his recent life. The rapper has been battling bipolar disorder for years, often publicly, with more than a few extreme episodes. Due to some combination of that mental illness and his dramatic conversion, West’s wife and the mother of his children, Kim Kardashian, filed for divorce in February. As far as we can tell, Donda was finished in a time of extreme solitude by a man already deeply troubled. But in an interesting counterpoint to the egotism that so often overcomes Kanye and his work, these personal troubles are tied into broader social ills: violence, family breakdown, racial strife, the exploitation of the underclasses by capital, and more.
Even burdened by his own big head and everything inside it, Kanye manages to meet all this with a prayerful turn to God. But West’s self-designed Christianity is firmly in the sola fide camp, and he seems altogether unconcerned with contributing works in service to God’s will. He sees ruin, and he calls to heaven for a solution, and he pretty much stops there. (Suddenly, the affinity with Trump makes sense.)
Also underdelivered in Donda is… Donda. Kanye’s late mother, a professor of English at Chicago State University, is supposed to be the subject at the heart of this latest project. Especially given his recent religious turn, Donda might have been expected to highlight the role of a mother in the life of a Christian and a community, all the more so in light of the family collapse at the center of the album. But except for a couple archival clips of audio, in which she’s talking about Kanye, Dr. West mostly fades into the background.
Even in the title track, Donda is not quite the center of attention. It opens with a single word on repeat: “Glory, glory, glory glory.” Again we see that damning ambiguity, as Kanye leaves us guessing whether he’s singing about God or about himself. It becomes only slightly clearer as the song builds and expands to a dramatic climax, with further repetition: “It’s the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.”
There might be more cause for optimism about the whole affair if “Donda” actually was what Kanye seems almost to have made it: a meditation on the power of the family in the face of the forces of worldly destruction, ultimately subsumed into a vision of the kingdom of God that it prefigures.
Maybe on the next album—or in the next election.