If you were to read half-a-dozen reviews of Kanye West’s latest album, Donda — and I recommend that you don’t —you would learn chiefly that West is a bad person. He’s a bad person for associating with social undesirables; he’s a bad person for supporting Donald Trump; he’s a bad person for hosting album release parties; he’s a bad person because he’s a navel-gazing egomaniac with suspect spirituality; he’s even a bad person for learning how to value women from his experience of having daughters. When reviewers aren’t telling us things West himself has told us for decades (see the lyrics to Runaway, Everything I Am, and I am a God for three examples picked almost at random), they tend to say that the album is bloated, incoherent, lacking in narrative structure.
But what none of these album reviews will tell you is this: the title track for Kanye West’s latest album opens with West repeatedly singing “Gloria,” moves into a recording of his late mother reflecting on the fact that “we came from somewhere; not just the wombs of our mothers and the seeds of our fathers, but from a long line of generations who came before us,” and ending with the conclusion to the Lord’s Prayer: “(Thine) is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.” Two questions immediately present themselves: why don’t the reviewers seriously analyze this sequence, and what does this sequence mean? The answer to the second question will teach us the answer to the first.
Let us first, however, get some preliminaries out of the way. Is West’s album too long? Yes, although interestingly, there is little consensus about which tracks he ought to have cut (my votes are crowd-pleasers “Ok Ok,” “Junya,” “Believe What I Say,” and “New Again”). Is West’s association with Marilyn Manson disturbing? Certainly, and that is, no doubt, why West associated with him. Would the album have been better if it had included more of West’s late mother, including her extraordinary contribution to the ultimately excluded “Never Abandon Your Family,” West’s harrowing, heart-breaking song about his divorce? Certainly.
Does the album break new ground sonically? Yes and no. While featuring new soundscapes filled with woozy vocals mixed with electric guitars (“Moon” and “Jail”) and playing with trap (“Off the Grid”), Donda also incorporates the best elements of West’s past work, like the synths and consistent, thumping base from Graduation (“Believe What I Say” and “New Again”), the shrieks and vocal distortion prominent on Yeezus (“God Breathed”), the Weeknd features and pitched-up, plaintive choruses from The Life of Pablo (“Hurricane” and “Jonah” respectively), and even the shouting from his Kid Cudi collaboration Kids See Ghosts (“Heaven and Hell”).
But for all that, West’s latest album is remarkably cohesive, both sonically and thematically. Donda is an album about piety, about the obligations we have to God, our ancestors, our spouses, and our children. While less overtly evangelistic than Jesus is King, Donda finds West seeking to integrate his obligations to God into the rest of his life. On “Pure Souls,” West raps “Devil, get behind me; I’m loose, I’m free / Father, Holy Spirit, let loose on me / Father, I’m yours exclusively”; “God Breathed” finds him discussing his conversion experience and concluding, “God, the Son, all the glory”; “Off the Grid” features West proclaiming that “everything we did” is “for my kids, kids, kids / for when my kid’s kid’s kids have kids.”
Even West’s attempts to get Larry Hoover released from prison are framed in terms of filial piety: “For all the guys who went to the White House and said ‘Free the old man’ / Every day I put my life on the line to feed the whole clan.” Hoover is a father, and so is Kanye. The title track, one of the best songs West has ever made, places reflections about our forefathers in the context of God’s great glory, power, and rule. The generations, it teaches us, are blessed and kept by the hand of God. To God, we owe total devotion and worship; to our families, provision and protection; to our neighbors, assistance, that they might worship God and serve their families.
But if the music is, as even some reviewers who panned the album admit, very good, and if the album is about piety, why is unprecedented vitriol from our commentariat aimed directly at West? Of course, West publicly admits his faults in detail few others could stomach. He tells us on this album that he curses at his wife, gets angry when she’s around only to be sad when she’s away, and resists God’s will for his life. He even hints at infidelity on his part in “Hurricane.” But reviewers aren’t angry about any of that; nor are they angry about his past moral failures. They are upset by West’s politics, and they think that West’s distasteful politics undermine his piety. One reviewer argues that West does not feature enough women on the album, an “insult” to “our sensibilities” since the album is named for his mother; another reviewer claims she will never be able to “forgive” West for “standing on his late mother’s porch with Manson”; still another, cited above, claims the album isn’t truly “spiritual” at all, “outside of literal references.”
For critics today, wrestling with how to discharge one’s obligations to God and family cannot be genuine expressions of spiritual angst, in part because said critics see associating with the right people and denouncing the right presidents as prerequisites for honoring one’s father and mother. But this gets things fundamentally backwards: the family precedes the polis in the order of creation, and therefore also in the order of moral obligation. Politics are subordinate to the family, which entails that people can discharge their most fundamental earthly commitments to their family members while pursuing decidedly wrongheaded political goals. But even if that were not the case, West has never hidden the truth, never pulled the wool over anyone’s eyes — he’s told us that he’s a bad person, self-obsessed, prideful, lustful, a provocateur, a scoundrel. But in telling us this, has West told us anything else than what we already knew, that he is a man like other men, a man like us?
Kanye helps us to ask the only question that ultimately matters: What does it mean for bad people to love God, our families, and our neighbors? In answering it, Kanye has given us his best album in nearly a decade.