The first noticeable thing about Kanye West's tenth studio album, Donda, is its mass. With 27 tracks, a running time of an hour and 48 minutes, and a dense list of contributors including Jay-Z, Kid Cudi, Roddy Ricch, Jay Electronica, Travis Scott, Lil Durk, and many, many more, Donda is poised to be an epic statement, an all-out event. The music itself tells a different story. Still bearing the religious overtones of 2019's Jesus Is King, West assembles the sprawling Donda from minimal arrangements that linger while feeling eerily unfinished. This is perhaps most apparent in the conspicuous absence of drums from many of the tracks. The hooky "Jail" sounds like a rocked-up version of something from Graduation, with Auto-Tuned vocals swimming happily around crunchy guitars. It's a banger with no bang, though, waiting until the last seconds of the song to bring in a brief, stilted drum pattern. "Tell the Vision" also lacks a forceful rhythm track, stitching together a stumbling piano loop with fragmented hi-hat skitters to hold a ghostly verse from Pop Smoke. Traces of the old Kanye show up alongside this new subtractive approach. "Junya" is upbeat and confident, with a cheery church organ sample and another skeletal rhythm track serving as a backing track for lively flows. We're reminded of West's production mastery when he cuts up a Lauryn Hill sample for standout track "Believe What I Say," while "Lord I Need You" carries diminished echoes of the grandiose pop magnitude of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and the thick bass and abrasive rush of "God Breathed" would fit in on Yeezus.
Donda isn't without its highlights, but taken as a whole, it's both confused and confusing. The album is purportedly a tribute to Kanye's late mother, Donda West, who died in 2007. Donda's presence is felt throughout the record, in particular during moments like the somber beauty of "Jesus Lord," and more directly on the song that bears her name and includes audio of her speaking. In this exhaustive form, however, it becomes harder to keep the threads of any emotional narrative or even fully absorb the slew of sometimes only partially realized ideas that play out over the course of Donda's nearly two hours. At a certain point, all but the most devoted fans might have to wonder if everything that made the final cut is completely necessary. As with every new shape he takes, Kanye can be heard deep within Donda's drum-less beats and protracted wandering. His role as the man behind the curtain somehow keeps the songs compelling even as they become hard to digest. 808s & Heartbreak confounded both fans and critics with its frigid atmospheres and gothic undertones when it first arrived in 2008, but its production went on to influence the better part of the next decade of mainstream pop and rap. The first few times through, Donda feels haunted and incomplete, yet there's a spark deep inside the songs that suggests Kanye might merely be ahead of the curve. It wouldn't be the first time.