The Spectacle of Ye: Kanye West’s ‘Donda’

Kanye’s latest doesn’t just take on the form of an album in our media ecology. It is an event we all take part in and help cultivate, Walker Armstrong writes.
By    September 7, 2021
Photo via John Cannon for Universal

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Let Walker Armstrong tell you about 90’s Memphis hip-hop and the slow cancelation of the future.

The clock on the waxy stone wall ticked down like a kind of doomsday index—10 hours 15 minutes… 9 hours 25 minutes… 6 hours 13 minutes… — slowly eclipsing the event horizon of Kanye West’s newest spectacle, the release of his long-awaited album Donda. The veteran hip-hop star’s 10th album seemed poised to hit the public consciousness in the same manner as most of his other releases: as a ceremonial testimony to the religious dedication culture has to the music of Ye.

The livestream camera stood sentinel inside of the sickly claustrophobic room of Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium as a nameless producer donning a black DONDA security vest tweaked his Mac. It looked like the type of place that merciless correctional officers hose-down and process felons, and the minimalist vests didn’t do much to abate this image. If a stray onlooker were to witness this scene for a quick second, they might think it was a snuff film I was watching—or pornography. But this camera was fixed on Kanye West’s room, his living quarters since his July 22 listening party.

Witnessing this scene, one can’t help but draw comparisons to the ascetic tendencies practiced by Lenin. It’s a strange contrast given that Kanye is typically resigned to the heights of hagiography and idolatry, that hemmed-in niche of society where they feast on fame. In this instance though, Ye seemed to adopt the principle of renouncing worldly pleasures in the pursuit of the greater good, all the while remaining at the pinnacle of influence and power—the politburo says who gets bread, not the people and Ye says when Donda drops, not the people. Of course, this release is not taking place in early-20th-century Russia, it is occurring within the context of decrepit postmodernity. In this light, it draws to mind the refrain of the cultural theorist, Fredric Jameson, talking about pastiche.

“Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody’s ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared with which what is being imitated is rather comic,” Jameson says.

Kanye more or less embodies that element of pastiche with this Donda release, and really, in everything he does. One cannot necessarily say that the infamous line in “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” — now if I fuck this model, and she just bleached her asshole… — for example, is a direct parody of anything, only that it plays off certain cultural features inherent to our age. In this case, it’s excessive sexualization, post-irony, and irreverence. It’s a kind of self-referential cultural imitation, ironic at the expense of itself. But Ye’s Donda release is not only a logical extension of his habitually spectacularized image, it serves as an important example of our cultural palette, what we see as good, bad, and ugly.

This album release, as well as the hype surrounding it, has proved to be nothing less than a profound (if not confused) cultural statement. A thermometer in the maw of media and social relations, telling us more about what we like, desire, and value than any academic or author could ever hope to. And that’s how Kanye has always been — a figure who is at the helm of collective fantasy. Revamping and reimagining taste, only to create trends that others grab onto. Take autotune for instance. It’s no secret that before 808’s, such a technique was considered philistine– strictly for those artists who couldn’t cut their teeth with the more key-savvy singers and producers. It only took one album, one event, for Kanye to change that entire paradigm.

Over ten years and nearly ten albums later, the same phenomenon holds true with this Donda release. Take, for example, the several twee, posh-looking people who filtered in and out of the August 5th livestream — a kind of veiled virtue signal to the general audience of us plebeians wasting away on r/Kanye. Are they not indicative of this as well? A gaggle of Kanye’s entourage decked out in the simplicity of Balenciaga, in that purgatorial room, “vibing.” Is this kind of exclusive, hyper-cool vibe Kanye cultivates not the kind of aesthetic we value today? Is this simplistic, almost barren style not what’s “in” right now? Is this not what’s slated to be “in” for the foreseeable future? In this way, West’s antics and mania do not just reflect on him, but rather on all of us.

They reflect on all of us, not the least bit because of our psychology. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, in his seminars and writings on his psychoanalytic theory, posited desire to be central to human subjectivity. We are creatures that desire objects that we do not, at the present moment, have in our possession—social status, fortune, clothing, comfort, career, etc. But Lacan takes this notion a step further by saying that what we in fact desire most is the desire of the other—in psychoanalysis, “other” is shorthand for another person, or (any) other human subject. We want other people to want us. I don’t mean to psychoanalyze Kanye here, but it seems obvious to any onlooker that Kanye wants us to want him. Evident from the amount of time and energy, not to mention all the lore and mania, surrounding Donda and its release, we can’t say that Kanye’s fuck it attitude is anything but another trait inherent in the manufactured image of it all—however unconscious it might be.

Just as we thought we’d seen it all, around 5:00 p.m. PT, right after we saw a mic and chair get set up in that parking garage lobby of a room, the stream switched to a still shot of a white, ethereal space with a twin bed on the floor, unmade, and beside it what looked like a first-day-of-school outfit laid out in neat, orderly arrangement—a light fog billowing from the bottom of the screen. Kanye’s Marxist sojourn transfigured into the Memory Architect’s quarters from Blade Runner: 2049. And this is how the stream remained for some time.

During the time leading up to the actual performance, Twitter and r/Kanye were two anxious subjects, questioning the itinerary like rabid ants. Comments ranged from cocaine optimism at having the opportunity to be graced by their idol’s sonic manna, to manic dysphoria at the possibility that Ye would back out on his promise and violate this social contract. And sometimes comments verged on suicidal ideation. “If he doesn’t drop Donda it’s going to be my 13th reason,” one Reddit user exclaimed. Luckily, the moral support surged just as hard as these neurotic, fatalist tendencies. “I believe this is the real deal this go-around,” another user said. “Also if you need anyone to talk to we got your back, buddy.”

All the while, Biden was calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York to resign over allegations of sexual harassment, the Dixie fire and others like it are posing new threats to Californians on the imperative issue of how to deal with climate change, just as wildfires in Greece and Turkey are raging in an unprecedented display of the effects of a rapidly decaying planet, and COVID is surging again, running rampant in a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” But an album release, at least in the cultural sphere, supersedes coverage.

As the hours rolled over, and the clock finally hit 6:30 p.m. PT, nothing changed—just a still shot of this white room in perennial suspension. Then, as if by some miracle, in white lettering, PLEASE STAND BY. THE EVENT WILL BEGIN SHORTLY, appeared on the bottom of the screen. Thirty minutes went by, still nothing. Until, like divine investment, a shadowy, faceless figure strolled up, some penumbra from the depths of this world. And from out of the white fog, gracing the outer darkness of this scene, it was Kanye, on stage decked out in an all-black assortment of Balenciaga, facemask to boots—a stark departure from his July 22nd Akira-inspired red monochromatic Gap fit. A woman’s prerecorded voice then began to speak as the camera panned out slowly, revealing the coordinates of the shot. This space, floating through the opacity of some divine backroom, turned out to be in the center of the vast Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the podium upon which Kanye would present Donda to his dedicated following.

Divorced from the spectacle-of-Ye, Donda itself is as ambitious a display of Kanye West since The Life of Pablo. Minus the latter’s inherent mania and schizo-affectivity, Donda is, in fact, Kanye’s best work since TLOP. It contends with loss and mourning, just as it does with a rabid spirituality. We hear Kanye’s mom talk, just as we hear Pop Smoke rap and Ye talk about being reborn—assuredly a cocktail of self-conscious affirmations and benedictions. It’s Graduation’s freshmen glitz meets 808s and Heartbreak’s harrowing sadness, with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s orchestral instrumentation, and Jesus is King’s spirituality tied together with Yeezus’ unpredictable, subdued rage. And if you could get over the ritualized, choreographed theology of the “Kanye West Presents Donda at The Mercedes-Benz Stadium” hype, his livestream performance did the album justice.

The show began with that woman’s sonorous voice, a prerecorded spoken address to the audience. As a listener, we assume it to be the posthumous voice of Donda West, the album’s namesake and Kanye’s deceased mother. Ye ran through all of the songs on the album, running, jumping, and sometimes standing in place to look up and around at his proverbial flock. Aside from the expected features, those of The Weeknd on the album’s notable gem, “Hurricane,” and Travis Scott on “Praise God,” there were several other surprises. The late Pop Smoke made a posthumous appearance on the unnerving and bass-barren “Tell the Vision.” His really baritone sounding out like a shade from some netherworld through a dense thicket of absent 808 hi hat hits and a droning DJ Mustard-style piano melody—Ye paying homage to the Brooklyn-born rapper during the livestream by going hard and slam dancing around the stage in the greatest display of movement he expressed throughout the entire show.  Other features included DaBaby, Roddy Rich, Lil Baby, and Baby Keem; OG’s like Ty Dolla $ign, Lil Durk, Young Thug, Conway the Machine and Westside Gunn, Chris Brown, Don Oliver, and Kid Cudi. Not to mention Playboi Carti and Lil Yachty and Ariana Grande and Fivio Foreign.

Equally as critical to mention were the dancers and performance artists who accompanied Kanye during the set. One can’t really say, however, that they accompanied him necessarily, as they were more or less a mob of sixty or so faceless disciples gyrating in perpetual unity around their masked messianic leader. Kanye, utilizing, citing, and invoking all manner of Judeo-Christian imagery and theology—whether out of honest religious value or for a kind of shock ritualistic appeal we’ll never truly know—took up the reins of his mass of followers, aloof and tenacious up in the ivory towers of fame. All the while, the flock remained vigilant, unending in their praise and presence throughout the entire performance. Until, like some fallen angel of God, Kanye ascended into the rafters of the stadium. The show promptly ended and the livestream went blank.

Behind all the expected rap tropes and theological concert imagery, Kanye found a way to deconstruct the normative logic of hip-hop and dazzle us with a show of harmony and sound we haven’t heard since perhaps Graduation. The album itself is an uncompromising example of neo-gospel vocal arrangement, that cornerstone which has come to ultimately define Kanye’s late-career style. It is a force of cathedral reverb accompanied by church-organ melody lines. And with drums ranging from acoustic boom-bap beats one might expect to hear EPMD to spit over, to slapped-out 808 trap only the dirtiest ghetto Gods fuck with, Donda is truly an enlightened work.

The most fascinating object of study though was still the performance, or rather lack thereof. It was less a performance more than it was a social ritual, an intersubjective act of contrition, a public bereavement mediated by the crowd in the stadium and Apple Music. Kanye’s mourning on display for everyone to take part in. If this was a “concert,” in the proper sense of the word, Kanye would have performed the album. Instead, choosing to host a live listening event signified a departure from the performance artist and towards a public invitation to take part in this ritual of mourning that Donda contends with. Kanye didn’t want to perform, as we typically see musical artists perform. His black mask reduced his subjectivity to a void, mirroring our own inner abyss, as he just stood in his room and listened to the album with us, the spectacle audience.

But now, to all who didn’t attend the recent event in Chicago, that all seems like a distant, unreal dream, because, despite the pervasive urges of Ye stans everywhere, the man took his time dropping Donda — simply apparent from the fact that the initial announcement took place a year ago. One can only surmise that he wasn’t satisfied with the result of the August 5th listening party, however passionately he danced to “Tell the Vision” or hacked and pawed at the air during “Jail” or “Keep My Spirit Alive.” I can’t help but think, too, that because Ye and KIDS SEE GHOSTS practically fell on deaf ears, Kanye wanted his latest effort to reflect more of the pre-Ye Kanye. That proverbial “Mr. West” Kanye who set out to make “the perfect album” with MBDTF, who spent months stown away in Australia and Hawaii fine tuning projects like the gorgeous, neurotic, egomaniac-with-an-inferiority-complex that he is. The Kanye we nearly saw with Jesus is King, remaining just shy of the mark. That is, where Jesus is King, for me, seemed to lack in musical ambition, Donda reached back through the catacombs of Kanye’s discography, retrieving that nearly forgotten bit of musical artistry once assumed to be a given.

It didn’t even seem that Kanye wanted to release it even when it finally dropped. The day following Donda’s sudden appearance on our various streaming platforms, Kanye took to Instagram and subsequently informed the world that Universal Records released it without his consent, claiming they dropped the album “without [his] approval and they blocked “Jail pt 2” from being on the album”—the comment section promptly reassuring Ye that, in fact, “Jail pt 2” was still on the unsanctioned product. In other words, the event, it would seem, is unending.

Now, with show dates, that recent performance in Chicago, record-breaking numbers, and Kanye seeming to stay on course despite a well-documented history of mental illness and a frenetic work ethic, Donda is not over. So, whether or not Universal was right in allegedly releasing the album without Kanye’s consent, or whether or not Kanye was right in withholding it for so long despite the many protestations and promises made, the debate rages as the hype persists with the impersonality and libido of a running river. And Kanye knows that, conscious of the pull that he has on music culture, able to yank at the strings a bit, or maybe just sway with the taught threads he’s attached to. Either way, the (finished) product is great even if it’s not fully Kanye-approved.

Kanye’s latest release doesn’t just take on the form of an album in our media ecology. It’s “everything you need,” an object ofculture, the spectacle of Kanye. It is an event we all take part in and help cultivate. Needless to say, everything that has thus far surrounded the drop is a testament to that sentiment. Donda has become a cultural fetish. And I would be lying if I said it wasn’t due in large part to Kanye’s ability to push the coordinates of possibility beyond what music is supposed to be.

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