Kanye West unveils ‘Donda’ album, with a verse from Jay-Z

By Jewel Wicker

A man who is rarely short on words, Kanye West didn’t even have a microphone.

Premiering his new album, “Donda,” in front of a packed crowd at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Thursday night, the rapper, who has become known as much for his failed presidential run and his pending divorce as his music, chose not to say a single thing.

Dressed in a red jacket with matching pants, West walked around on a white tarp, delivering outsize gestures and dance moves to his new music for less than an hour before leaving. It was a decidedly different tone from his previous public listening sessions, including one he held in 2016 at Madison Square Garden before the release of “The Life of Pablo.” For much of the night, West stood in the center of the stadium’s football field, in the middle of a spotlight, surrounded by fog. When he walked around the venue, he spent a good portion of his time in front of the section where his four children with Kim Kardashian, North, Saint, Psalm and Chicago, were seated. Despite the fact that she has filed for divorce from West, Kardashian and her sister Khloe were also in attendance.

“Donda,” West’s 10th studio album, was scheduled to be released by G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam Recordings on Friday, but it did not appear at midnight, when new music typically reaches streaming services, and still has not surfaced. Representatives for West did not respond to requests for comment about the plan for the album’s release.

The album, his first since 2019’s “Jesus Is King,” was named after the rapper’s late mother, Donda West, who began her career as a professor at Morris Brown College in Atlanta in the 1970s. Kanye West was born in the city during this time, although the family would eventually relocate to Chicago. His mother died in 2007 from complications related to plastic surgery. Presumably in honor of her Atlanta ties, West gave 5,000 tickets to Thursday’s listening session to faculty and students at historically Black colleges and universities in the city, including Morris Brown, Clark Atlanta, Morehouse and Spelman.

Fans were given few details about “Donda” before the event, and the excessively loud speakers at the stadium made it hard to decipher lyrics or other key details. What was clear from the public listening session, which also streamed live via Apple Music, was that the album continued to explore themes of religion both sonically and lyrically, and featured a bevy of guest artists, including a new collaboration with Jay-Z.

The lyrics from “Donda” seemed to have little to do with the rapper’s late mother directly, although the album does feature her voice in a few interludes. (“No matter what, you never abandon your family,” she says at one point.) The first track that was played during the event featured West repeatedly chanting “We gonna be OK” over an organ as the crowd illuminated the stadium with cellphone lights. Even on the more boastful songs (“Excuse my manners, I got status. Excuse my problems, I got commas”), there were still heavy nods to his Christian faith. One hook from the album featured the lyrics “I know God breathed on this,” as well as the cheeky lyric “God the father like Maury.”

While an official track list has not been released, the songs played during the listening session featured guest appearances from rappers including Pusha T, Lil Baby and, perhaps most surprisingly, Jay-Z. Despite their close relationship early in West’s career, they had been open about the strain in their friendship in recent years. The new collaboration teased a “return of the throne,” nodding to the pair’s joint album “Watch the Throne” a decade ago. One Jay-Z lyric appeared to reference West’s onetime support for President Donald Trump: “Hold up, Donda, I’m with your baby when I touch back road/told him stop all of that red cap, we goin’ home.”

A few lyrics on the album seemingly nod at his separation from Kardashian, including one where West pleads, “I’m losing my family.” Elsewhere he raps, “Single life ain’t so bad.”

It is unclear if the songs played at the event represent the entirety of “Donda.” West, who appeared to still be working on the album in the hours leading up to the event, according to his social media, is known to make changes to projects up until they are released, and sometimes afterward. (Jay-Z’s verse was recorded at 4 p.m. on the day of the listening session, according to Young Guru, the rapper’s longtime recording engineer.)

The crowd for the event packed the Atlanta stadium, where there are no restrictions on crowd size despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Attendees were given paneled posters that featured a blurry image of the rapper and his mother. The back of the poster included instructions on how to transform it into a fan, as well as the words, “Mom West was a remarkable woman and a role model who we all loved dearly and cherished. We are fortunate that our lives crossed paths.” Merchandise with a childhood photo of West’s mother was also available, in addition to a beige long-sleeve shirt that featured the name of the album, the date and a Mercedes-Benz logo.

Although it had only been announced three days earlier, the listening session attracted fans from outside Atlanta, too, including three friends from Madison, Wisconsin. The trio said they traveled from Madison to Milwaukee at 3 a.m. to catch a 5:30 a.m. flight to Atlanta.

“Kanye’s the best producer/rapper out there,” Sam Brink, 22, said. “That justifies the money” the friends spent to attend, he added. Even before the event began, he said he had high expectations for the album and hoped it would be released as scheduled.

“I’ll put it this way, if it doesn’t drop, we’re flipping cars,” Brink said with a chuckle. By the time the friends were headed back to Wisconsin on an 8:30 a.m. flight Friday morning, there was still no sign of “Donda” on streaming services.

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