In January 2020, Kanye West held a Sunday Service at Skid Row in Los Angeles, where he told the world, “Don’t call me secular, because secular is trying to say that I’ll do anything for anyone other than Christ. That’s where they got it messed up. That’s where they got it twisted.”
But a critical listen to his new album Donda reveals that it’s as self-absorbed as any of his previous work. Pusha-T praised Donda on Instagram for being “about power, money, influence, and taste.” It’s unclear if he interpreted the project as a Christian critique of money and power, or a celebration of those same things. The project’s lyrics feel like the latter, which makes it a complicated gospel.
The album is well-produced and laden with melodies and mantras that will, for many, serve as a balm for existential discontent. The project’s “Heaven and Hell” on earth theme is executed well, with confessional verses from the likes of Fivio Foreign, Lil Baby, Lil Durk, and Jay Electronica. Donda’s highs will serve as a soundtrack for those seeking refuge from the world’s challenges. But Kanye’s Donda ruminations compile a self-involved, patriarchal brand of Christianity that’s heavy on piteousness but light on personal accountability. Kanye tabbed a who’s who of rap to give their testimony, but he wasn’t fully forthright about his. For all the feels of “Moon” or “Lord I Need You,” it’s difficult to ignore how some of the album’s participants have made others feel with their past controversial actions—especially Kanye.
If another, less controversial artist had helmed Donda (with less controversial features), perhaps there would be more praise at how someone deftly crafted gospel hip-hop that wasn’t so obviously made to be gospel hip-hop. We all fight private battles that songs on Donda could be solace for. But considering all of Kanye’s very public battles, the limited scope of Donda’s self-inventory feels like intentional omission.
He shines the most on “Hurricane,” where he explores his personal and marital woes, and “Jonah” and “Pure Souls,” where he speaks to his Chicago heritage in different manners. But there’s not much candor beyond those tracks. Lines like “nothing else ever feels right” but God present the image of a mistreated artist in a misunderstanding world. But as forgiveness goes, some people aren’t going to overlook his dalliance with Trump. Or before that, his misogyny or colorism or unread musings about race. On an album where so many artists took stock of their life, he offered no explanation or reflection on his own worst moments.