Murray Franklin : What's with the face? I mean, are you part of the protest?
Arthur Fleck : No. No, I don't believe any of that. I don't believe in anything.
When Kanye West posted a screenshot of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker to a group text he hope we believed included Drake and threatened the recipient would never recover, it was an oddly modest parallel. Coming from a newly minted billionaire whose self-comparisons range from Steve Jobs & Walt Disney to Patrick Bateman & the humanoid from Prometheus, the morbid and mentally unwell Arthur Fleck, a struggling performer and failure on the verge of cataclysmic violence, would qualify as the closest West has painted himself to poverty since “Spaceship.”
But the comparison goes deeper than any outburst or fierce competition or diss track could provoke. If the DONDA album rollout has taught us anything, and increasingly so, Kanye West’s entire persona has always been founded on splitting the room. DONDA’s six-week promotional circuit saw West hellbent on pushing the boundaries of the fame game, namely the creative marginalization he’s been railing against since even before he was famous. DONDA may be a lot to handle, but it’s hard to argue that such an approach would be anything other than on brand for the self-proclaimed most important artist of his time.
Yet still, ensuing arguments are the gasoline that makes the Kanye West artistic machine move. With five delays and more than one shock tactic in full swing, West’s album cycle is becoming increasingly exhaustive (and depending on who you ask exhausting) & chaotic, and it’s his allegiance to higher learning and greater questions about our society that keeps him in the conservation and his diehard fans armed:
Ask a Christian and they’ll tell you West bringing out DaBaby and Marilyn Manson was the absolution of two casualties by a messianic figure, ask a Kanye-scholar and they’ll tell you West is forcing us to reconsider our societal hatred in return for his musical offering. It about as ridiculous as it reads on paper and without West giving a single interview in regard to his release parties, we’re left to speculate. Kanye West’s disregard for our changing constructs, namely streaming, politics, and marginalization in fashion, is part of a larger career long trope, with a middle finger to an entire industry that has been telling him what to do, and the other falsely guiding us to reinvent a society he feels we have got wrong. It’s why Heath Ledger’s Joker likely would have made more sense – trigger happy and hell bent on making our culture reconsider heroes from villains.
And if we learned anything from West’s insane listening stadium events, he definitely knows how to flip an eighteen-wheeler. With 27 songs and a near two-hour runtime, DONDA may be a lot to consume but West has always performed best in maximalist settings in contrast to seven song projects. Here, after the divisive Jesus is King, its sequel, and Ye, he’s defiantly smashing down the doors with big electric guitars, walls of synths, and a Throne reunion…all on one song. It does not slow down from there. Both versions of “Jesus Lord” qualify as West’s longest songs of all time at nine and eleven and a half minutes. The outrageous “Come to Life” combines grand piano arpeggios with Mike Dean’s layered electric guitars for Kanye to ruminate on life, Nike, fatherhood, absolution, and one would assume from the epic presentation, West’s death.
It’s the type of album you should probably have to wait for. West hasn’t rapped this frenetically, this sharply, sung this powerfully in nearly a decade and a huge lineup of guests have been called in to service the DONDA universe; it’s an effort West considers so divine that we might have to pay for it with more than just our monthly subscriptions. DONDA’s five delays, lack of information, and ever-changing presentation pushed to subvert what an album could be in 2021, but instead confused the hell out of people who called poor planning and pointless perfectionism.
This overwhelming ambition and delusions of grandeur ultimately seem to disservice Kanye West’s projects of late– towering themes at odd lengths always centred around an explosive epiphany yet render as rhetorical wolf cries. But Kanye West stopped striving for universal appeal years ago. It’s likely why the large majority of criticism surrounding DONDA is its over excess, with many complaining of a headache and claiming to have turned it off after a few half listens.
When has Kanye West ever not irritated or provoked you or given you a headache? It’s his artistic M.O. Further, any person expecting something modestly packaged or mastered from a man who used his fortune to replicate his childhood home in a football stadium only to set it and himself on fire is intentionally setting themselves up for dislike.
In fact, negative reaction to the music itself on DONDA seems to be aligning more and more with public fatigue and the 18-year tumultuous relationship West has had with the public and a fairly uncompromising media. But Kanye West’s battle with his own reputation is crucial to his legacy, taking one of the most important musical artists of the past three decades and somehow creating an underdog story where his art can be devalued by the things that come from his mouth. Every interview seems to be louder than the last, statements more and more braggadocious, despite his tone softening. His publicity stunts are becoming noticeably more well funded, bigger, and more ridiculous and his clothing popping up more and more.
It’s understandable that 18 years of action like this can feel like forever and West’s shock tendencies will likely overshadow the epic scale of DONDA into something dismissed as overwhelming. It likely won’t matter that “Believe What I Say” brings West’s career full circle in its acquired sample for Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop,” an artist whose royalties West could not afford on his debut. The fact that a plate of nachos was being sold for $45 at the Mercedes Benz arena’s VIP section, something of a “Brunchzilla Pt. 2,” will historically take centrestage to West giving away thousands of tickets to the faculty of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The record’s deliberate tonal similarity to 808s and Heartbreak, also seismically impacted by the absence of West’s mother, will likely go over many people’s heads. Kanye wearing apparel from elusive designer Junya Watanabe on his ish over a baseball stadium organ isn’t setting himself up for loss, it’s the rallying cry of a man who is finally fully free from the constraints of industry law.
DONDA also holds allegiances to many of West’s earlier records – their large track lists and range of emotion, illustrious guest features play more like characters in a film than cross promotion vehicles from other labels.
Though one major change cannot be discounted: Kanye West has fuck you money now. He can hold on to his album, rebuild his house at the snap of his fingers, and play totally against the establishment grain with very few people who can successfully stand in his way. It’s an album that continues to push and play off the notion of Kanye West’s existence in our celebrity driven world. DONDA represents the 10th chapter in the grandiose life of a man with six billion on paper, totally uncertain of his life partner and whose Presidential Run turned into a public meltdown.
You see, Kanye thinks he’s a mix between Joaquin Phoenix and Heath Ledger’s jokers, ready to spaz at any trigger and forcing our culture to reconsider hero from villain, but he’s something more akin to a modern-day Forest Gump: deceptively simple, miraculously successful, maybe well intentioned, and unaware of the massive implications of his actions as he stumbles through our complicated history. Is putting a DaBaby verse on “Jail pt 2” or Marilyn Manson on the DONDA stoop akin to putting Gotham residents on two boats with detonators? Or Did Kanye just show Lyndon B Johnson his ass wound?
It is this hyper personalized macro-life perspective and subject matter that consumes DONDA. Kanye has always rapped about being a Black man of considerable power, fame, and celebrity in America consumed by adultery, family, and material wealth, but now it’s presented with an ever-raised profile. It’s this captivating career arc, this prototype for modern stardom that allows Kanye West to have the biggest album in the world right now despite half the world not understanding its thesis. It’s why we allow Kanye West to drop records how and when he pleases despite the alleged interference of UMG. It’s why “DONDA > CLB” is showing up everywhere despite the former being an undeniable, intentional mess and the second being a viable pop record.
Ultimately, DONDA’s downfall and what renders it impressive instead of important (as opposed to Yeezus), isn’t that it’s excessive or over the top, it’s that DONDA sounds like 27 songs from 27 different projects…and most of them aren’t even Kanye West’s. “Praise God” combines an incoherent verse from Baby Keem verse with a boisterous one from Travis Scott yet leaves little room for West to do anything memorable. The band wagoning of Roddy Ricch’s “High Fashion” into “Pure Souls” has almost nothing to do with the Kanye West ethos or sound, while “Tell the Vision” places a very good vocal from deceased rapper Pop Smoke over a very good piano loop and nonsensically sandwiches it between two reflective gospel songs.
With DONDA, Kanye West further pushes his career long ambition of reinventing the modern album format, a record massive in scope and scale that questions an era where album sequence is ultimately relegated to a customizable playlist. It’s an autobiography of a man whose entire persona rests upon us accepting that he believes he is God, and yet most of his music is written in a world where God actually exists. A record released without notice on a Church Sunday morning like some kind of streamable scripture. A record containing outrageous questions about cancel culture in a country founded off the freedom to ask them. An artist that has earned the right to doing something totally different and interesting and epic and dismissing an entire legion of people saying that he can’t.
And some men just want to watch the world burn.