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With Kanye West’s “Donda,” 25 Years of Lessons Come to Life

Abundant and age-defying, Donda is not only longer than his previous projects, but proof of Kanye’s unrivaled longevity.

Kanye West has long leaned toward brevity when crafting an album. The ultimate editor, West has switched sounds with each launch, still refining the famous handwritten tracklists to palatable consumption and poignant taste.

Since shedding skits on Graduation, Kanye has kept his projects concise. Most records clock in at less than an hour, with recent releases like Jesus is King, Ye, and Kids See Ghosts not even hitting the 30-minute mark. In the era of stream chasing, Mr. West has dismissed all algorithms by dropping seven-track projects, a stark contrast to the filler fodder of so many of rap’s rising stars.

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Despite current trends, history has long suggested that short albums are critically smart, even if not as financially viable digitally. In a genre where Nas’ 10-track Illmatic is considered a triumph and Jay-Z’s 112 minutes of The Blueprint 2 is measured as a miss, Kanye has avoided the long play format or daunting double album for the course of his career.

Until now.

Worth the Weight

Coming in at 27 tracks, Donda is not only long-awaited, it’s long in length. Aiming for abundance like Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life or Prince’s Sign O’ the Times, rap’s most rebellious resident is entering rarified territory when it comes to expansive song selection.

In hip-hop, it’s generally taken an all-time legend like 2Pac and The Notorious BIG to go for the classic dirty double as a solo artist and stick the landing. Classic rock royalty like Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Bruce Springsteen have dropped triumphant double albums with one main mic, while Wu-Tang Clan, Led Zeppelin, Outkast, Pink Floyd, and The Beatles all dropped celebrated two-disc projects in collective form at the peaks of their powers.

Today, it’s not just that Kanye came through with the modern equivalent of an applauded double album — it’s that he did it in 2021.

At 44 years old and admittedly more focused on fashion than music for roughly a decade, Kanye West the rapper was pronounced past his prime three albums ago, and he probably is. Still, he was able to release 27 tracks of sprawling sound that touch on everything from his public divorce, polarizing presidential campaign, and his faith.

Because of all this weight, the timing for Kanye to put out his most extensive record seemingly couldn’t be worse. But he’s no stranger to opposition; Kanye released quite possibly his most acclaimed album ever, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, amidst the Taylor Swift VMA fallout and Drake’s meteoric ascent. He described the project as a bouquet of flowers to his fans, carefully curating the most liked elements of his previous projects into one polished triumph.

All the Pieces Mattered

If MBDTF was a bouquet, Donda is a buffet.

Whether dream-chasing or stream-chasing, the project pulls from Kanye’s entire education since starting out as a producer in 1996 and releasingThe College Dropout in 2004. Donda delights with the tongue-in-cheek commentary of his first three albums, dives deep with the pain and vulnerability of 808s & Heartbreak and MBDTF, and challenges rhyme schemes through abrasive beats best exemplified on Watch the Throne and Yeezus.

Even a compilation like Cruel Summer represents lessons learned, like the power of adding an unexpected feature weeks past preview as a way to take a track over the top. The in-the-moment honesty of Ye likewise appears, while uplifting narratives heard on Kids See Ghosts and Jesus is King direct the messaging.

“He showed me on his computer and there’s something like 2,000 songs at least on there that have never been released,” former YEEZY GM Jon Wexler shared during a conversation with Boardroom on Twitter Spaces earlier this year. Kanye’s relentless work ethic, constant creativity, and ability to edit and refine have made him into one of the most productive and most prolific artists of his era.

In this sense, it took Kanye 44 years to make Donda, even if the studio dates say otherwise. And while Pac, Dylan, and Stevie didn’t do it on their own, clearly neither did the billionaire superstar who’s been plenty busy releasing shoes and running for office.

Having help from longtime collaborator Mike Dean and new friends like Playboi Carti and Baby Keem, Kanye carries much of the rapping on Donda while still getting vocal support from The Weeknd, Jay-Z, and Kid Cudi. The producer who once put Freeway and Mos Def on the same track now has Roddy Ricch and Jay Electronica on the same album.

If that gap seems smaller, it’s only because we’re living in the world Kanye created.

If rappers, rock stars, or singers had Basketball Reference pages, the “wins above replacement” output of 2021 Kanye West on Donda might just rival that of Wilt in ’62 or Jordan in ’96. Not only does the album place the rapper-producer back on top of the hip-hop hierarchy, but it’s a statement to longevity as an overall artist in his third decade in the business.

Even the prolific Prince or deified David Bowie struggled to appeal to the charts and the critics symbiotically in their 40s. And while modern peers like Jay-Z and Beck have remained relevant (and awarded) with age, they are still outpaced by West’s frequency and scope.

At an age where most arena rock stars slow down and release career-ranging greatest hits compilations, Kanye West is rocking arenas by releasing entirely new music that’s a culmination of his hit-making career.

No one knows where Kanye goes next after Donda, but we do know everywhere he’s been because of it.

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