Donda is the tenth studio album by American rapper and producer Kanye West. It was released on August 29, 2021, by GOOD Music and Def Jam Recordings.
Supposedly in production for the last 2 years, Kanye West has steered Donda through rocky waters right up to its release. Donda’s release has seen delay after delay while Kanye juggled production, a high-profile divorce, mental health battles and management issues with his controversial collaborators.
The unpredictable timeline of release with expectations on the rise among both fans and critics since July of 2021 has allowed Kanye to build the most prolonged and profitable hype around Donda, the buzziest in recent memory. A big chunk of the hype cycle stemmed from the thousands in attendance (and millions watching via livestreams) at the string of pre-release arena listening parties hosted in Atlanta and Chicago. (Fun fact: Fans reportedly auctioned air from the Donda Drops at around $4000 a bag.)
The album is more than a set of a dozen songs on streaming sites: it is a 27-track(!) long monster and more importantly, a visual, sensory, creative experience of a lifetime for spectators. In pure West fashion, a traditional record company promotional strategy was never the plan. West’s listening parties gave the fans front-row tickets to experience the album in the midst of its real-time, chaotic construction. The reactions of the audience to the songs that were played was used by West to gauge how to tweak the music ahead of its release. A slightly different version of the album was previewed at every listening party, with different mixes and track orders. Songs finished hours before a listening party, some with references to headlines as early as the week before, were added. The track list kept growing in number and in name, with different A-list musicians contributing to different, and sometimes the same, songs (case in point: Jail ft. Jay-Z and Jail Pt 2 ft. controversial rapper DaBaby)
West also released Donda Stem Player, a music creation gadget shipped out with the album, which allows users to customise any song to your liking. What these arena previews and this gadget show is not only a chaos-in-motion, hype-generating, interactive rollout of an album but also West’s belief that the life of an artist is as much of a performance and influence as the art. West’s open, work-in-progress comportment allowed the fans to view his artistic process through a clear lens while also allowing them to become co-creators of sorts. It’s not to say the fans were the only ones having fun.
West seemed quite amused while staging these mega-events, not to mention setting himself on fire (probably a stroke of his self-proclaimed genius). Along with the fun, he was also making a lot of money, generating sales of at least a $7 million just from merch and tickets per listening party. This made the idea of West continuing to host the listening parties indefinitely, while constantly tweaking the album’s structure and soundscape, quite likely. A fan theory suggests that is exactly what West planned to do by creating “an album that has materialized itself into existence without being officially released.” However, according to Kanye himself, the album was released by his record label UMG without his permission and things were taken out of his hands.
West’s building of Donda in public right up to its release (and maybe even after, because with West you never know) paves the way for a non-generic way of creating music: exposed and ever-evolving. West may not be the first to be open about his creative processes but what makes him revolutionary is the magnitude of his execution. The sky isn’t Kanye’s limit; it’s his playing field.