In her book, Raising Kanye, Life Lessons from the Mother of a Hip Hop Superstar, Donda West describes the release her son’s debut album The College Dropout as one of the most emotional moments of her life.
“I sat in the parking lot and listened to the whole CD. I couldn’t pull off. I wanted to be still and take it all in. I sat there, listening halfway holding back tears-halfway jamming. I had the music turned up real loud. I wanted to open my window and scream to everybody walking by “Hey, this is my kid!”, ” she writes
For Donda West, an English professor who had heartbreakingly watched her son dropout of university to pursue dreams of being a rapper, the release of The College Dropout, an anti higher education album, was both a recognition of a hard won victory and a validation of her choice as a parent to support her son in spite of his decisions. To her relief the album would go on to alter the sound of mainstream hip hop, earning West his first Grammy award and birth a generation of producers and rappers who, like West, refused to be constrained by their middle-class backgrounds.
It would also be an album loyal to one of the central tenets of her teachings as a parent: racial upliftment. West was raised on values of paying it forward and being a positive reflection of your community, and his embodiment of those values would, for a time, see him exist as something of a conscience for a genre that until then, had been starving for a new sound or what rapper Jay-Z calls a ‘new soul’. How could she not be proud? In his searing critique of black American consumerism in the song All Falls Down, inspired by Lauryn Hill’s Mystery Of Iniquity (West couldn’t get clearance to use the song in its originality), West pulls no punches
“Cause they made us hate ourselves and love they wealth,” he raps
But The College Dropout didn’t completely shun the hyper consumerism that took root in hip hop with the rise of Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy Records and Notorious B.I.G in the late 90’s. West’s criticism was more of a means to his own economic ambitions than a genuine radical position, what writer Christopher Lebron calls his ‘neo-woke moment’. But it did force many of his contemporaries to have a more critical reflection of their yearning for personal wealth and what they sacrificed in the process.
The genesis of Donda
It has now been nearly two decades since Donda West excitedly parked her car outside of a Best Buy store in Chicago to buy her son’s debut album in 2004. The rapper, now a billionaire, has returned with his tenth studio album and this time it bears her name, Donda. Suffering a tragic death caused by post-plastic surgery complications in 2007, she is not alive to see her name on the title of her son’s tenth studio album.
Her unexpected death is an event many critics believe Kanye West has never really had an opportunity to properly process and, as such, is responsible for triggering many of the public breakdowns and outbursts that have imbued West in recent years. West’s closeness to his mother was something unheard of in a culture with a preoccupation with unhealthy relations, thriving on narratives of traumatic violence.
But he was not the first rapper to flaunt his adoration for his mother, rappers had been narrating single-parent struggles and celebrating their influence long before West — most famously Tupac with his 1995 heartfelt appreciation of his mother Afeni Shakur in Dear Mama. But where Pac and others performed their love as a retrospective act of maturity, West saw his love as what many progressives would call ‘a praxis’ and was unapologetic about his mother’s continued influence on his music and life.
“You’re like a book of poetry, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni” West raps on the song Hey Mama from his 2005 critically acclaimed sophomore album Late Registration. But of course, hip hop’s penchant for misogyny meant that West’s respect and adoration for his mother would not be extended to other women.
West’s middle-class background meant that more than anyone else, he sought what writer Mychal Denzel Smith calls “desperate hood acceptance”. Being born into partial privilege in an industry that recognises only triumph over struggle should have been limiting; but for West it meant not being bound by the same masculine codes as many of his hip-hop peers. He could freely perform his love and still keep his street cred[ibility] intact.
Losing his voice
Despite the history behind its title, Donda is West’s least anticipated album in nearly a decade. The last time a Kanye West album generated the kind of buzz we’ve come to associate with West was in 2016, when he released his seventh studio album The Life of Pablo (TLOP) three years after the release of the polarising Yeezus album. With that album fans and critics who had been disappointed by Yeezus hoped West could redeem himself and deliver a coherent album. Although The Life of Pablo did achieve some redemption for West; it was a far cry from the acclaim garnered by his earlier albums.
The album also failed to address the elephant in the room: was West an artist past his prime? Those who’ve long argued that this was the case, were not entirely wrong. What followed after The Life of Pablo was nearly a half-decade long episode of erratic public behaviour, a complete embrace of Donald Trump and his right-wing base and a failed 2020 presidential bid that saw West cast himself as a custodian of conservative American Christian culture and life.
But of all West’s sins, his comments about slavery being “a choice” in 2017 were the most shocking. Those comments effectively emptied his seventh studio album Ye of any substance or relevance. But a turn to gospel in 2018 with two albums Jesus is King and Jesus is Born both acclaimed amongst West’s Christian audience could neither save him nor win him the votes he needed for political office.
Donda, the album
With Donda, West seeks not only to redeem himself as an influential liberal black figure but to settle the debate around his relevance as an artist. It’s not the first time that he has been written off or one of his albums raises hopes of a return. In 2008 West released his genre-bending fourth studio album 808’s and Heartbreak and ushered in an era where it became possible for hip-hop artists to explore their vulnerabilities and their emotional state with more freedom. But despite that it performed extremely well commercially and proved West’s range as an artist, the consensus among critics and fans was that it spelled the beginning of the end for West.
But those who held hope for West’s musical redemption looked to My Dark Twisted Fantasy – an album comedian Chris Rock has likened to a great rock album – in that it was an album ahead of its time and therefore defied categorisation. But the argument, which West brilliantly settled with My Dark Twisted Fantasy then, was purely about his ability as a musician. He had not toyed with the dark magic of right-wing politics or insulted his ancestors by making light comments about slavery. Hence, the expectations for Donda far outweigh those of My Dark Twisted Fantasy.
West has recently been making what appears to be amends, setting up a university fund for George Floyd’s daughter and volunteering to cover the legal costs of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor both victims of police brutality and racism. It is perhaps these moves that left fans hopeful of a return to the days when West’s music, though still self centered, carried some form of social commentary. But anyone who’s betting on Donda for West’s redemption will be hugely disappointed.
“I told him to stop all that red cap/ we going home,” West’s long-time friend and mentor Jay-Z raps in a surprise feature, one of the few moments in the album where West’s recent political decisions are addressed.
Jay-Z’s appearance marks the return of one of the most important relationships in mainstream hip-hop, after a rumoured feud. West and Jay-Z, through their various musical and business endeavours, have ensured that hip-hop’s reign as the “new opium of the youth” endures. Another surprise appearance on the album is that of rapper Jay Electronica. Like Jay-Z he adds a necessary political element to an album that’s mostly about West’s personal issues.
“Earthquakes will strike this nation for what Bush did to Rwanda/ What the Clintons did to Haiti and what Downing Street did to Ghana,” he raps.
West returned to some of the soulful elements that have made him a household name, like the introspective poem from his mother on the song Never Abandon Your Family. It is as close as West gets to something akin to an honest reflection, reckoning with his failed marriage. And to keep his pulse on current trends, West has surrounded himself with younger artists and producers like Travis Scott, The Weeknd, and Digital Nas. But there’s an obvious disconnect between his music and the realities of his life.
At 44, with a failed marriage and an album that bears his mother’s name, the expectation was that West would do some introspection and reckon with his contradictions. But Donda isn’t an album of honest reflections. Instead, West continues to cast himself as a victim and survivor.
“He’s done miracles on me,” West sings in the album’s lead single No Child Left Behind. For him, Donda isn’t an opportunity to repair and reconnect, but a victory lap. I Know God Breathed On This reinforces the message from the lead single; West is simply marvelling at his own triumphs, never mind the wreckage in his path.
An identity crisis
West would, of course, like us to believe that he’s still “the voice of a generation” he once proclaimed himself to be, but Donda is a continuation of an ideological crisis that has possessed him for much of his career. Though it incorporates some secular themes, it is still an album devoid of complexity and mostly rooted in West’s pseudo-spiritualism. Both West and his fans seem to be caught up in a moment of nostalgia, if not denial, where they believe he can still achieve the kind of genre bending and era-defining music of The College Dropout and 808’s and Heartbreak.
Much of that denial rests on the idea that West is supremely talented. That he’s one of the most talented artists of his generation isn’t questionable. But his fans seem to forget that it wasn’t just the music that catapulted West to political relevance. Yes, he injected hip-hop with a new sound but his music resonated because it mirrored the realities of black American (and global south) youth in a way that, until his arrival, had been almost non-existent in mainstream hip-hop.
If West’s most recent albums left us with more questions than answers; then Donda should settle things. The Kanye West of The College Dropout and Late Registration isn’t coming back.