In the end, it was Drake who forced Donda’s arrival. After a Beats ad announcing the project, three listening events, and a last-minute appearance by accused rapist Marilyn Manson, Kanye West only finally released Donda when Drake lit a little fire under his ass, teasing a date for his own upcoming album Certified Lover Boy. Or is it so simple? Things rarely are with Ye (as Mr. West is now apparently calling himself, based off a legal filing to change his name and officially make his 2018 album a self-titled), who’s now claiming his label released Donda, his long-promised 10th studio album, before he gave final approval. And that’s to say nothing of the album’s ever-changing state, bloated tracklist, and dozens of collaborators (some happier with the “final” result than others). So let’s get up to speed on all things Donda with a guide to the album. It’ll take a bit — but still only a fraction of that 108-minute runtime.
The beginnings of Donda coincide with the beginnings of West’s doomed 2020 presidential run, as much as we may want to forget about that. Days after announcing his run in July 2020, West teased a song called “Donda” on Twitter, named for his late mother and posted on her birthday, July 12. Then on July 18, West tweeted and quickly deleted an announcement for an album called Donda, to be released July 24, 2020. He’d previously been teasing a Jesus Is King followup called God’s Country, and just released the single “Wash Us in the Blood” in late June; Donda was thought to be the new iteration of that album. (Don’t even get us started on Yandhi.) The 20-song tracklist he tweeted on July 18 included many titles that ended up on the final released album, including “Donda,” “Keep My Spirit Alive,” “Lord I Need You,” “Off the Grid,” “Tell the Vision,” and “Praise God.” West tweeted a new tracklist on July 20, featuring a slimmer 12 songs, including new addition “I Know God Breathed on This,” which seemingly appears on the final album as “God Breathed.”
.@KanyeWest announces the release of his new album, ‘DONDA’ on Friday, July 24 including the highly anticipated “New Body.” pic.twitter.com/ySJKBd1NFJ
DONDA coming this Friday pic.twitter.com/HGibF3PHYf
But the album never materialized on July 24 (possibly owing a bit to Taylor Swift’s surprise folklore drop that same day, along with the general territory that comes with releasing an album on Kanye Time). In the months after, West didn’t say much about his next album, instead focusing on his campaign and releasing a Christmas EP with his Sunday Service Choir, Emmanuel. Enter: 2021. “Tell the Vision,” a Pop Smoke–featuring song initially teased on West’s first Donda tracklist, eventually came out on Pop Smoke’s second posthumous album, Faith, on July 16, 2021, complete with a verse from West’s GOOD Music president/partner Pusha-T.
Days after, the first reports emerged of an A-list, invite-only Donda listening party that allegedly took place that weekend. West followed up the news by announcing his first public Donda listening event, at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium on July 22 — with the assumption being that the album would come out at midnight on July 23, a full 364 days after it was initially intended to. West even confirmed the release date in a Beats ad that debuted during the NBA finals, starring sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson and featuring the previously teased song “No Child Left Behind.”
West indeed debuted a version of the album on July 22, hours later than scheduled, but Donda wasn’t formally released afterward. A new listening event followed two weeks later at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on August 5; West moved into the stadium in the interim, reportedly touching up the album and livestreaming his new life from a locker room in the stadium. West again debuted an updated album, and said updated album again didn’t hit sales platforms and streaming.
Kanye living like a Scandinavian serial killer serving his 3 year maximum sentence. pic.twitter.com/wEIBafUehq
The routine repeated three weeks later, with West announcing a listening event at Soldier Field, in his hometown of Chicago, for August 26. And for a third time, the album didn’t appear that following Friday, when albums are traditionally released. Except then it did, the morning of Sunday, August 29, in a fitting touch from pastor Ye.
Upon the album’s release, GOOD Music president Pusha-T praised West in an Instagram post explaining the album. “This is about power, money, influence and taste…nothing more, nothing less,” he wrote. “Watching you ‘joystick the culture’ makes us all proud. Continue to do things your way, congrats, and I’m honored to have been a part of the process.” And it definitely was about money, with Billboard estimating ahead of the Chicago event that each of West’s Atlanta events grossed between $1.5-$2.7 million. That’s to say nothing of the Apple Music livestreams for West’s listening events, with the second and third each breaking Apple records at 5.4 and 5.9 million viewers, respectively.
Right. Amid the circus of the Donda rollout, Drake appeared on Trippie Redd’s song “Betrayal,” dropping a subtle diss at West to reheat some old beef. “All these fools I’m beefin’ that I barely know,” he rapped. “Forty-five, forty-four (Burned out), let it go / Ye ain’t changin’ shit for me, it’s set in stone.” (West is 44.) West responded by posting a screenshot of a group text that looked to include Drake, where he appeared to add Drake’s mortal enemy Pusha-T and sent a picture of the Joker. “You will never recover,” West wrote. “I promise you.” Drake responded on August 27 by teasing the release of his own long-delayed album, Certified Lover Boy, for September 3, at that point the new intended release for Donda according to its Apple Music preorder (which had been updating the release date as each delay came and went). Later that day, Hits Daily Double reported that West delivered masters for Donda to his label (for a second time, after once taking them back), and that the album would be out that weekend. TMZ also reported that some Drake fans took matters into their own hands and left a few signs at West’s actual childhood home in Chicago, including one reading “45 44 BURNT OUT.”
Kanye West’s childhood home is vandalized by Drake fans pic.twitter.com/ZsgxRPE7QN
It sure seemed that way … until hours later on August 29, when West posted a message to his Instagram. “UNIVERSAL PUT OUT MY ALBUM WITHOUT MY APPROVAL AND THEY BLOCKED JAIL 2 FROM BEING ON THE ALBUM,” he wrote, referring to the second version of the song “Jail,” which he debuted featuring DaBaby and Marilyn Manson at the Chicago Donda event. When the album first hit streaming, “Jail pt 2” was not available to play; text message screenshots West posted (and later deleted) alluded that DaBaby’s management had not approved the feature for release. “I’m not taking my brother off,” West wrote. “He was the only person who said he would vote for me in public.” In another text, he added, “So the album is not coming out.” DaBaby’s manager, Arnold Taylor, denied West’s claim on Instagram, calling it “social media bullshit.” He added that West had not been in touch about the song and he “Cleared it in 2 seconds” once he finally heard from the rapper. “Jail pt 2” became available to stream hours after the rest of the album.
A post shared by ye (@kanyewest)
That’s right! As he’s done since 2016’s The Life of Pablo, which he tinkered with even after releasing it, West has been steadily updating Donda, going back to the drawing board (and that whiteboard) after each listening event. One example: West’s Kids See Ghosts partner Kid Cudi tweeted after the first Atlanta listening event that he wasn’t on the album, then appeared on the album by the second Atlanta event. (Lil Durk similarly joked he “missed the jet” to work with West in an Instagram comment ahead of the first Donda event, but later tweeted, “I lied I made ye jet lol” when his verse on “Jonah” played.) He featured on newly debuted song “Remote Control,” also with Young Thug, and a new version of “Moon,” along with Don Toliver. However, once West brought Donda to Chicago, both Cudi’s parts had been removed (although the other guests stayed). As for the officially released version of Donda? No Cudi verse on “Remote Control,” but still Cudi vocals on “Moon.”
Even past that DaBaby verse, the song “Jail” has been through its own journey. West’s first listening event, in Atlanta, ended with the song’s debut, along with the surprising revelation of a Jay-Z feature — the first collaboration between the Watch the Throne rappers in five years, which Jay reportedly recorded earlier that day. The song stayed intact at the second Atlanta event, but by the Chicago Donda event, West seemed to have replaced Jay-Z with two choice guests. He stood on the porch of a reconstruction of his childhood home, the centerpiece of the event, with Marilyn Manson and DaBaby, as he played a new version featuring both musicians — a pointed choice, given recent allegations of rape and abuse against Manson by over a dozen women, and DaBaby’s recent fall from grace after making anti-AIDS and -LGBTQ comments at Rolling Loud Miami in July. A West source confirmed to People after the event that the choice in guests was deliberate: “He knows that people are going to be upset and that there will be backlash,” the source said. On the released version of Donda, “Jail” featuring Jay-Z is track two, while “Jail pt 2,” featuring Manson and DaBaby, is track 24.
West also adapted the album to things that happened between listening events. He added rap group the LOX to “Jesus Lord” after their impressive showing at a Verzuz battle against Dipset, which took place days after the first listening event; it marked West’s first collaboration with Jadakiss in nearly a decade. (West also added a speech from Larry Hoover Jr. to the song, after previously attempting to secure a presidential pardon from Donald Trump for Hoover Jr.’s father, the founder of Chicago’s Gangster Disciples.) That ended up being the 11-minute “Jesus Lord pt 2” on the official release, while the nine-minute original featuring Jay Electronica also stayed intact. West also added the Weeknd to “Hurricane” — a song that has, in years of past iterations, featured everyone from Ty Dolla $ign to 6ix9ine — after the singer told GQ, in a story published after the first listening event, that he wanted to work with West again. And on another song he added at the second event, “Lord I Need You,” West seemed to reference his ex Kim Kardashian’s attendance at the first Donda listening. “Time and space is a luxury,” he raps. “But you came here to show that you still in love with me.”
Past Jay-Z, Kid Cudi, Young Thug, and the Weeknd, the album features even more of West’s previous collaborators, like Francis and the Lights on “Jail,” Ty Dolla $ign on “Junya pt 2,” and the Sunday Service Choir on a number of songs. Many of the collaborators are featured across multiple cuts — singer Vory features on “God Breathed,” “Jonah,” and “No Child Left Behind,” for instance, while Playboi Carti is on “Off the Grid,” “Junya,” and “Junya pt 2.” Also on “Off the Grid” is rapper Fivio Foreign, who appears on “Ok Ok” as well, which also features rappers Lil Yachty and Rooga.
And the list goes on! Travis Scott returns on “Praise God,” alongside Baby Keem, after previously guesting on June 2020’s “Wash Us in the Blood,” thought to be a Donda single at the time. Among the rappers joining Keem in working with West for the first time? Lil Baby features on “Hurricane,” after West tweeted that he was his “favorite rapper but won’t do a song wit me.” Also featured on that song is KayCyy, a rapper who’s been circling West for over a year prior. KayCyy also contributes the chorus to “Keep My Spirit Alive,” a song that marks West’s first linkup with the Griselda crew, as members Conway the Machine and Westside Gunn both feature (along with a small contribution from Royce da 5’9”, also new to West’s fold). After Roddy Ricch criticized West for peeing on his Grammys in 2020, the rapper features on “Pure Souls” (alongside dancehall singer Shenseea, also on “Ok Ok pt 2”). “They said I was mad at the Grammys / But I’m lookin’ at my Grammy right now,” Ricch raps. “Pulled up on Ye, and I said, ‘They don’t understand me’ / I just want my dawg to pipe down.” Meanwhile after Lil Durk paid homage to West with his “Kanye Krazy” music video, the Chicago rappers got to formally collaborate on “Jonah.” On top of it all, the album features one impressive sample too, of Ms. Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” on “Believe What I Say.”
You’d think an easier question would be who isn’t featured on Donda, but not quite. When the album officially arrived, many fans thought they heard Ariana Grande’s voice on title track “Donda.” But hours after the release, Grande praised featured vocalist Stalone on her Instagram Story, while Stalone tweeted, “I love Ari and so grateful that my vocals would even be compared to hers.” Then there’s also Soulja Boy, who had previously contributed a verse to “Remote Control” that didn’t make the final Donda cut. He tweeted text exchanges with West about a feature on August 29, adding, “Tell homie dont hit my phone no more.” Chris Brown, West’s “Waves” collaborator who is featured on the chorus of “New Again” but reportedly had a verse removed from the song, also had some choice words upon the album’s release. He first called West “A WHOLE HOW” on his Instagram Story, before deleting that comment and replacing it with “NAH HE TWEAKIN.” And before you think West is doing a service by removing two other accused abusers from his album, now would be a good time to mention that Manson is credited on the original version of “Jail” as well as “pt 2.”
This nigga Kanye smh. Tell homie dont hit my phone no more. pic.twitter.com/jAoumHDz4F
West hasn’t described Donda as such, but he hasn’t ditched the religious comments and imagery of his recent work. If it’s not obvious from all the song titles mentioned, many of the songs invoke God, Jesus, the Bible, and Christianity. In the texts West posted to Instagram about clearing DaBaby’s “Jail pt 2” verse, he wrote, “The people next to you trying to destroy you[,] But God gotta bigger plan,” presumably referring to Donda. West’s second listening event in Atlanta even saw him ascend into the sky at the end of the performance, in an allusion to heaven. And in a puritanical twist, Donda is only available for sale and on streaming in its clean version.
Purity itself seemed to be one of the motifs of West’s listening events, with the Chicago event featuring West setting himself on fire before restaging his wedding to Kim Kardashian, with his ex-wife playing herself. The events also featured multiple homages to his childhood — past the reconstruction of the house in Chicago, he wore all red during his first Atlanta event in homage to Akira, a 1988 anime film he has been a fan of for years and called “the greatest animation achievement in history.” West’s childhood, of course, ties in with the album’s namesake, his late mother, who appears across the album via archival recordings. “Donda” features a speech she gave in 2007, referencing West as “the man I describe in the introduction as being so decidedly different.” The first show debuted a cover for the album that was a painting by the French artist Louise Bourgeois, who explored motherhood in her work after her own mother’s death inspired her to become an artist. The cover was later reportedly changed to a photograph of Donda West, although the released version of the album has an all-black cover — in what could be seen as evidence that West really wasn’t ready to release the album yet after all.
DONDA album cover for Kanye West features artwork by Louise Bourgeois pic.twitter.com/WbJLI7yHnT