Donda 2 — the quick turnaround successor to last year’s polarizing Donda — is a slapdash assembly of lazy features, incomplete production, and mumbled verses from an asleep-at-the-wheel Kanye West. Perhaps it’s the fact that Donda 2 released simultaneous to Coodie & Chike’s Jeen-Yuhs documentary, with its extensive footage of Kanye’s painstakingly elaborate creative process on The College Dropout, but this new work feels beyond careless. It’s the product of an artist convinced genius is inherent to his biology: that anything he haphazardly tosses together and releases is bound for greatness. It’s a work of artistic apathy: a soulless cashgrab released as a Stem Player exclusive (Kanye’s handheld listening device which sells for an obscene $200 USD). While Kanye’s inflated ego has long been tied to his greatness, with Donda 2 it seems mostly a hindrance blinding him from any self-awareness of his creative output.
This is a sequel to Donda in name only. Donda West, Kanye’s late mother and the albums’ namesake, is irrelevant to these songs. She’s evoked once, and it’s as a declaration of spite; “No, you can’t be on my mama album,” Kanye opens with on ‘Security’. The line is a likely jab at Kid Cudi, Kanye’s frequent collaborator. Recently, Kanye condemned Cudi for his friendship with Kanye’s ex-wife Kim Kardashian’s now boyfriend Pete Davidson. If this sounds like an incoherent soap opera, it’s because that’s precisely what Donda 2’s narrative backbone is. Kanye’s bars, when finished, oscillate between self-pitiful pronouncements, bitterness at Kim Kardashian, and a barrage of fashion designer namedrops. Admittedly, Kanye’s vocal performance is still occasionally charming. For instance, his expressive intonation and growling on ‘Security” results in a visceral vocal performance. Furthermore, the absurdity of an autotuned Kanye belting out “When you lay down and I gave you the semen/ I swear I heard God, the voice of Morgan Freeman” on an otherwise puritanically censored album almost registers as endearing.
On the first Donda, moments of repetition often felt hypnotic. The outros of tracks like ‘God Breathed’ or ‘Pure Souls’ lingered on minimalist loops, sparking emotion through stasis. Donda 2’s lack of variation, however, seems instead a product of artistic bankruptcy. On ‘Louie Bags’, one of the album’s worst tracks, Kanye stumbles through repetitions of the same hook (“I stopped buying Louie bags after Virgirl died”) over a staid beat with little variation. Most of the album’s production is anchored by run-of-the-mill trap beats, but there are moments of astounding sloppiness that transcend its general mediocrity. For instance, a Talking Heads sample repeatedly punctures through ‘Keep It Burning’ with no integration to the rest of the music, as if it was blindly dropped into a DAW and left to fester. ‘Flowers’ features the worst production of Kanye’s career, marked by a characterless arpeggio melody and a pulseless beat. It’s an album with little interest in refinement, sprinting off with whatever first idea comes to mind.
Still, there are some slight moments of creativity sprinkled amongst the ashes. Yet even the highlights resemble rehashes of Kanye’s past work. On ‘Get Lost’, Kanye sings through a vocoder with no instrumental accompaniment. It’s instantly reminiscent of the intro to Kanye’s ‘Lost in the World’, which interpolates an acapella vocoder segment from Bon Iver’s ‘Woods’. Unfortunately, ‘Get Lost’ fails to reach the emotional rawness of Bon Iver on ‘Lost in the World’ (or the classic acapella vocoder track, Imogen Heap’s ‘Hide and Seek’, for that matter). The emotional potential of the vocoder feels unrealized here. Similarly, ‘Security’ features a discordant interplay between rumbling distortion and a jolly flute sample. The contrasting layers are tense and ironic. However, the track never develops beyond that initial concept and winds up like nothing more than a Yeezus-era demo.
Kanye is no stranger to hurried productions. 808s & Heartbreak was recorded over three weeks yet still uprooted the trajectory of popular music, its reverberations still felt today. Yet 808s was composed with passion and a desire to subvert: something entirely absent from Donda 2. Here, it feels like Kanye is coasting off a long history of (admittedly deserved) declarations of his genius. While it’s possible a substantial reworking of the album (à la The Life of Pablo or Donda) might rectify its flaws and unearth some greatness, this version is an uncompelling blueprint. Ultimately, Donda 2’s exclusive stem player release is perhaps its greatest asset: limiting its audience and allowing it to be swept under the rug of cultural memory.