There was something curious but telling about the reports of the Miami launch event for Donda 2 this week. They relayed a lot about its visual extravagance, a lot about the technical cock-ups (which at one point caused the artist formerly known as Kanye West to throw down his microphone in anger); a lot about the baleful presence on stage of alleged rapist Marilyn Manson and homophobic rapper DaBaby, and an awful lot about the lyrical barbs aimed at his estranged wife Kim Kardashian West and her new boyfriend Pete Davidson. But the one thing you didn’t hear much about was the music.
You could say that’s a damning indictment of the media’s quest for headline-grabbing sensation rather than the thing that made the artist now known as Ye famous in the first place. Then again, listening to Donda 2 – which features Soulja Boy, Don Toliver and the late XXXTentacion, who have all been accused of domestic abuse – you do wonder if there’s much more to say about its contents. It’s an album on which the interest largely lies in the barbs, and – at a push – working out where your sympathy lies.
“No hard feelings,” he offers on True Love – in the spirit of someone prefacing something incredibly rude with a nugatory “I don’t mean to be rude but …” – before accusing Kardashian West of everything from parental neglect to lying to dressing their children incorrectly. He sounds genuinely anguished, but the sound of a 44-year-old man whining because he’s spotted his children wearing a different make of trainer to his own brand is pretty unedifying. So is Security, the track on which he bullishly calls Davidson out for a fight: you can hear something similar in any number of pub car parks after closing time without needing to buy the £200 Stem Player on which Ye is exclusively releasing the album.
The infuriating thing about Donda 2 – named, like its predecessor, for Ye’s late mother, who this time doesn’t feature in the lyrics at all – is that you end up focusing on this stuff despite yourself, because the music isn’t particularly interesting. There are moments where it fitfully sparks, where you get a brief flash of the authentically brilliant producer Ye can be: the ragged, off-key use of a sample from Talking Heads’ Burning Down the House on Keep It Burning; the way a sudden burst of electronic tones rushes out of the pattering rhythm track of Too Easy.
It’s nice to hear him paying homage to the house music of his Chicago home town with a snatch of Marshall Jefferson’s Move Your Body on Flowers – you just wish it hadn’t been attached to another peevish whinge on which he bafflingly takes credit for Kardashian West’s global fame. Far more often, the tracks feel vaporous, based around mournful, see-sawing synth patterns. True Love does everything it has to do within 90 seconds – mournful synth; mournful XXXTentacion sample; protracted whinge about Kardashian West – but it’s only halfway through: you get a lot more mournful synth for your money. The a cappella, Auto-Tuned Get Lost stretches a six-note melody out for what feels like months. Lord Lift Me Up starts out promisingly, with a huge orchestral sample, but gradually unravels into aimless meandering.
The Netflix documentary Jeen-Yuhs opened with a scene from 2020 in which Ye appeared to be simultaneously recording a vocal, planning his doomed presidential bid and petulantly tweeting something unwise against the advice of cooler heads. It may suggest the artist’s polymathic genius or his self-sabotaging erraticism: either way, it’s hard not to think that he may not be the multitasker he thinks he is; if Donda 2 might not have benefited from more focus. It occasionally feels demo-like, half-finished: the corroded electronics on Louie Bags are intriguing, but the song features what sounds like a placeholder vocal. Great lines are few and far between. Selfish’s “even friends got an E-N-D at the end” is smartly done, and Ye’s repeated bark of “Do I look happy to you?” on Happy has an disturbing edge, but there’s no mistaking the surge in energy when Quavo and Offset of Migos appear, trading lines on We Did It Kid.
“Make a choice – oxygen or wifi,” he snaps on Sci-Fi, a line apparently admonishing the public for their prurient interest in his private life. If that’s what it’s supposed to mean, it’s a spectacularly disingenuous thing to say in the middle of Donda 2, which hinges on the public’s prurient interest in Ye’s private life and frequently feels less like an album than an accompaniment, something that will burble away in the background while you busy yourself gawping at the circus on social media. Perhaps that’s exactly what it’s meant to be. What a depressing thought.