by Jack Ognibene
Kanye West is a figure who needs no introduction at this point. There are a myriad of words you could use to describe not only his influence within the music industry, but his influence over culture as a whole: omnipresent, overarching, and dominant being just a few that come to mind. There are also a few choice words one could use to describe the effects of his mental health struggles and erratic behavior over the past few years on his image and legacy; many of which overlap with those previously mentioned. Especially in recent months, polarizing is probably too kind of a word to levy at Kanye as a person, who verbally attacked his ex-wife Kim Kardashian’s current partner Pete Davidson directly, and in a fairly vicious manner at that. But, throughout all of this, one thing has stayed consistent — his ability to produce incredible art on an extremely consistent basis. It’s no secret to those who know me that I’m a die-hard fan of Kanye’s music, and, up until this point, I’ve always stood by the statement that I don’t think he’s really dropped a bad album — even Jesus is King was slightly above average. But, it finally happened. Not only did Kanye drop the ball, he dropped what is probably among the most embarrassing and obviously unfinished major releases within recent memory. This is made all the sadder by the fact that, upon listening to the album in full, there’s an immense amount of squandered potential that isn’t capitalized on in the slightest.
To start out on a positive note, almost every single feature on this album is a prime example of Kanye bringing the best out of those he works with. On the single “City of Gods,” Fivio Foreign drops an impassioned and rhythmically complex ode to the culture of New York, while Alicia Keys sings her heart out, begging the city to “go easy” on her. Although Kanye himself could stand to be a little more present on the track, Baby Keem and Migos drop pretty fun and infectious verses on what’s probably the most motivational-sounding song on the album, “We Did It Kid.” XXXTentacion’s posthumous incorporations on both “True Love” and “Selfish” are extremely well mixed and sound like they genuinely belong on the song, despite how bare-bones the latter track is. Jack Harlow drops what is probably the best verse on the album on “Louie Bags,” discussing how his career has affected his interactions with family as a result of his experiences watching many of his peers pass away. Truly, Kanye still has some sort of legitimacy as a guiding hand and an influence to others wherever he shows up. The production on most of these tracks is mostly okay, with some standout beats being displayed on the very synth-heavy “Flowers,” the Yeezus-esque “Security,” the very somber and subdued “True Love,” and the haunting “Sci-Fi.” There are so many opportunities throughout the album’s runtime for Kanye to shine, but, for some reason, he has chosen not to.
Throughout this album, there are maybe two or three Kanye verses that could be called complete. They’re not even incomplete in the slightly improvisational way that sometimes comes out in Kanye’s recent albums — they are genuinely unfinished. Kanye didn’t even hand in a first draft to his paper, he handed in an outline. He releases these dissonant, incoherent ramblings on “Happy” that sound just ghastly over the production, and, honestly, most of the time I couldn’t even make out what he was saying. On tracks like “Sci-Fi,” “Louie Bags,” and “First Time in a Long Time,” Kanye just repeats one bar over and over, maybe interjecting with some variation or single comment before returning to the same phrase again. On “Keep it Burning” and “Too Easy,” Kanye croons over the track, not even making an attempt to harmonize or speak a known language. It is so obviously apparent that these were all just placeholders for Kanye to return to and write better material, but for some reason, he just left them like this. To a degree, it’s insulting. Let’s remember here that he barred this album behind a $200 paywall by making it exclusively available on his Stem Player speaker brand. He could have chosen to make it available on his website for those who don’t want to purchase the speaker for a substantially lower price. Then, is this really the best he could give us for $200? Kanye West — the same man who dropped some of the greatest bars of all time on The College Dropout, the same man who sung some of the most heart-wrenching ballads in all of hip-hop on 808s & Heartbreak, the same man who came up with the line “too many Urkels on your team, that’s why your wins-low” — could barely come up with a few verses for his album that costs more than a brand new pair of shoes or a new set of AirPods. He’s punching far below his weight and asking for so much in return that, frankly, it’s disheartening and disrespectful toward his fanbase.
After all of this, however, a small bit of hope still clings to my heart. Both The Life of Pablo and Donda went through fairly extensive changes post-release, so maybe something similar can happen for this album. Maybe something salvageable can come to fruition, even if he can only bring it to an average level. Or maybe, it’s possible that that’s all just a pipe dream coming from a little fanboy’s heart. Either way, Donda 2 as it stands is like going to a restaurant, ordering a medium-rare filet mignon, and instead receiving an eye of round that’s fully raw in the middle. Kanye West has, for the first time in his music career, completely fumbled the bag.