13 instant takeaways from Kanye West's 'Donda' livestream

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A man wearing a red coat and pants and a mask over his face
Kanye West at the 'Donda' listening event at Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium on July 22, 2021. (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Universal Music)

Kanye West premiered his new album, “Donda,” on Thursday night in a typically lavish event held at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium and livestreamed on Apple Music.

The 44-year-old rapper-producer-entrepreneur’s 10th solo studio LP, named after his late mother, Donda West, follows 2019’s Christian-themed “Jesus Is King” (which had its own splashy premiere at the Forum in Inglewood) and comes after a tumultuous few years in West’s personal life that saw him launch his roving Sunday Service gospel series, embrace President Trump’s divisive politics — then mount a baffling campaign against Trump for the Oval Office — and separate from his wife, Kim Kardashian, with whom West shares four young children.

Despite the ongoing divorce proceedings, Kardashian and the children were reported to be in attendance in Atlanta.

“Donda” features guest appearances by Lil Baby, Pusha T, Playboi Carti, Roddy Ricch and Travis Scott, among others, as well as an out-of-nowhere verse from West’s longtime frenemy Jay-Z. Here are 13 instant takeaways from the album, which was originally scheduled to be released at 9 p.m. Pacific.

Kanye West prowls the Mercedes-Benz Stadium floor during the 'Donda' listening event.
Kanye West prowls the Mercedes-Benz Stadium floor during the 'Donda' listening event. (Getty Images for Universal Music Group)

1. A sign that West and Jay-Z — onetime collaborators whose relationship had cooled in recent years — had possibly reconciled arrives early in the album in a line about how the two are “still brothers.” But few likely expected Jay’s cameo in the album’s bombastic, hard-rock-style closing track, where he raps, “Hova and Yeezus like Moses and Jesus.”

2. ”Donda” intersperses its dozen-plus tracks with spoken-word interludes from the rapper’s mother, who died in 2007 following complications from surgery. Among her musings: what her son “meant to a generation” and the importance of unconditional love.

3. Several tracks on the album appear to address West’s divorce, including one in which he refers to “lawyers’ fees” and another in which the rapper sings, “I’m losing my family,” against a searing synth line. As those lines boomed over the loudspeakers at Thursday’s playback, West — who wore a bank-robber-style mask over his entire head — dropped to his knees on the stadium’s floor.

4. West also continues to rap about his relationship with God on “Donda.” In one track he promises to “repent for everything I’m gonna do again”; in “No Child Left Behind,” which he’d previewed earlier in a Beats by Dre commercial during Tuesday’s NBA Finals Game 6, West says, “He’s done miracles on me.”

5. Speaking of the NBA Finals, West refers at one point to the champion Milwaukee Bucks and their star player, Giannis Antetokounmpo — strong evidence, along with a tweet from Jay-Z’s longtime engineer Young Guru claiming that Jay-Z recorded his verse Thursday at 4 p.m., that West completed the album very recently.

6. The event in Atlanta was much more somber than his raucous, stage-filling “The Life of Pablo” event at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 2016. Yes, he was extremely late (and possibly even still finishing the album at call time), but the crowd had patience and seemed to respond in kind to the layers of grief suffusing this record. Kanye used "Donda" to work out his loneliness and bewilderment, and the audience met him where he was at.

7. Though he’s been known for years for his inventive beats, West occasionally forgoes drums entirely on his new album, as in one stripped-down track that layers gruff vocals from the late Pop Smoke over a tolling piano riff.

8. The production had plenty of head-scratching choices — cue the jokes about Kim getting custody of the 808s in the divorce — but the overarching mix of gospel-y church organ and brutal noise had some truly hair-raising moments. On "Donda," the catharsis and sexy nihilism of “Yeezus” successfully pair with the more celestial aspirations of “Pablo” and his recent Christian records. Messy and hard to pin down aesthetically, but very human and very, very Kanye.

9. Throughout the album, West’s vocals veer between extremely raw and extremely processed — an indication, perhaps, of his warring instincts to grieve in public and to reclaim his place in a woozy hip-hop ecosystem he helped create.

10. Despite his erratic, even loathsome (to much of his audience) politics and behavior in recent years, “Donda” is jam-packed with high-profile features even beyond Jay Z’s much-touted cameo — Travis Scott, Lil Baby, Playboi Carti, Roddy Ricch and Lil Durk among them (and lines from the late Pop Smoke). However Kanye’s MAGA bender may have affected his legacy, it did not dampen his peers’ enthusiasm to collaborate.

11. One track repeats the name of the Japanese fashion designer Junya Watanabe over and over again. Big moment for Junya!

12. “No Child Left Behind,” a callback to West’s George W. Bush-loathing years reframed through a divorce and his mom’s death, is both a funny title and absolutely devastating to sit with.

13. It was pretty self-aware of Kanye to let Jay roast him in the album’s valedictory verses. “Stop all of that red cap, we going home,” Hov raps, referencing Kanye’s Trump support in the gentle but firm tone of an old friend who has enough history and authority to tell you you’ve had enough and call you an Uber. No matter how arrogant Kanye has been, he never lost his self-critical streak either: “Was a hero after Katrina but that levee went dry,” he raps in one song. Is this the record that sets things right again?

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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