Last Sunday was a very important day in the history of music. Donda was released. And the legendary Lee ‘Scratch” Perry died. The Upsetter was one of the great studio innovators and he genuinely changed the face of music a few times. The dub and reggae legend will be sadly missed. He was a great character too who was a regular visitor to Cork, and he even celebrated his 80th birthday here a few years ago.
Lee “Scratch” Perry is the kind of music icon that Kanye would love to emulate and, love him or hate him, you can’t deny that the Chicago rapper has made a huge impact. He’s much more than a producer and a rapper, and he’s a successful businessman and fashion designer too, who has played a massive role in popular culture this century. Disregarding his other endeavours for a moment, there can be no denying his musical genius.
As a producer alone, he is one of the all time greats, and against the odds he also made it as a fairly decent rapper too. It was even more unlikely that he would develop into a singer, but the heavily auto-tuned 808s and Heartbreaks album back in 2008 has been as influential as his trio of huge rap albums from the early 2000s (The College Dropout, Late Registration and Graduation). These albums helped propel rap from clubs into a music with genuine stadium credentials, and Kanye’s ambitions were always more aligned with the likes of the Rolling Stones and U2 than anyone he was trading bars with on hip-hop records.
As he progressed, he made more sharp turns and the scope of his music became even more ambitious. My Beautiful Dark Fantasy is arguably his greatest album, and was followed by Yeezus and The Life of Pablo, two albums which stand up strong a good few years later. Ye had a mixed reception, as did the gospel album Jesus is King, but both have their moments, and through all of this Kanye had released some great collaborative albums with the likes of Jay Z and Kid Cudi too (Kids See Ghosts is a classic for my ears).
It’s amazing that a rapper in his mid 40s still has the world listening, and it shows how the art-form has grown in respectability from the days when rappers were discarded after one or two albums.
Kanye’s body of work remains incredibly relevant, and Donda is a credible addition, but there is a big feeling that it could have been much better. It’s nearly two hours long and has tons of guests plus a few alternative versions, but most listeners will agree that it would have benefitted from being a bit more concise. The problem is, what do you cut?
It all depends on your taste really. There is a beautiful string of songs from the middle of the album including ‘Moon’, ‘Remote Control’ and ‘24’, which do it for me. These are organ heavy gospel numbers which continue much of the good work started on his recent Sunday service material, and there is a minimal soulful 808s and Heartbreaks vibe here too. It’s Kanye over a Kanye sound which he helped create, and while there’s nothing sonically as innovative as previous experiments, it’s very strong music for me.
Other fans have praised the more conventional rap tracks from earlier in the album but to me they are mostly self-indulgent and unfortunately his rapping, to me, hasn’t been great for a good few years. This segment still has its moments too and there are some great collabs here, but ultimately it’s the later part of the album that is Kanye at his best for me. ‘Pure souls’, ‘Believe what I say’, ‘New Again’ and some of these other tracks are absolute jams, and well worth checking.
Donda is a spiritual confessional experience dedicated to his late Mom, and it finds the artist at another crossroads, after the break-up of his marriage. Hopefully he will find some salvation in his music.