Kanye West’s Donda is on the mind of nearly every music fan in America at the moment. I will hold off on musical judgment, however. The importance of Kanye’s latest album has yet to garner understanding in America’s centers of power, culture, and industry. This lack of appreciation is especially true within the conservative movement. What Kanye has created with Donda is a deep religiosity beyond romanticism – a 21st-century answer to the pain of modernity. The world in Donda is a treacherous trap forcing us to withdraw into ourselves and pursue the hollowness of hedonism – the core feature of modernity’s “culture of narcissism” defined by 20th-century social critic Christopher Lasch. Central to Kanye is how this cultural deconstruction has infected the church as well. Today, the church is often either a LARP or a hollow organizing structure for lukewarm “social justice” moralizing. Kanye West’s Donda presents a church that can answer modernity by offering hope to those battered.
Kanye West’s career up until this point is analogous to the work of a mad scientist: Clearly, Kanye West has immense musical talent, but it is also clear, from the lyrics of prior albums to his tabloid reported antics, that he knows this. Yet Donda does not care very much about this at all; he is the center of almost none of the songs, preferring instead to let other artists perform so long as they are – well – good. Marylin Manson provides brilliantly simple guitar work on “Jail” (a point of controversy, given Mr. Manson’s current series of allegations – bringing the idea of redemption to actual application). The Weeknd provides a memorable vocal performance on the track “Hurricane” as well. Punctuating the album is the occasional choir chanting.
From the first mention of them by Jay Z on “Jail,” Donda obsesses over two words: Sin and Hell. But it is not Kanye indicting others for sin or claiming others deserve hell; it suggests that there is hope beyond these things.
Unlike his previous Gospel album Jesus is King, or Kanye’s discography before his recent “conversion,” Donda is not a thank-you for the acceptance of a subculture, an all-out celebration of splendor and indulgence, or the niceties of bourgeois domesticity and family life. It is not a rant, no matter how much various social pathologies are called out. Instead, it is a sort of intelligent despair. He names the problems: His dead mother, his divorce, mass incarceration, death, and the emptiness of money.
On the track “Lord I need you,” Kanye says a remarkable thing: “I give up on doing things my way.” On the next track, “Pure souls,” the leading hook, sung by Roddy Rich, “and I cannot sell my soul,” is followed by Kanye singing “Love, truth, peace, freedom, justice, but I’m not five,” and “father holy spirit let loose on me.” In this, Kanye has effectively said he cannot change society, he cannot trust himself to do everything, and the only way out of his misery is for the divine to transform reality. The world, according to Kanye, the narcissistic Kanye, is gone. The only indictment he has left is for a society that paradoxically tells everyone that the world is there for them – that it reflects their wants and can be easily conquered in an uncomplicated way by transcendence.
The gospel preached here is a post-narcissism gospel. It is not a gospel that demands that its followers become “trad.” It deals with the world as is and stops demanding happiness from it. Our only hope is that “father holy spirit” will indeed let loose on me and can effectively get me out. Only this can help us resist the pull of a life thrown away on self-preservation and hedonism in a time when everything seems to be against the institutions and ways of life that can deliver happiness.
Kanye claims in the album to be free. The question is what he is free from. To bring this back to my opening, the political theorist and psychoanalyst Christopher Lasch, in his most famous work, Culture of Narcissism, proposed that in a society defined by precarity, traditional Christian values of restraint melt away, leaving only living for today. Lasch says, “As the future becomes more menacing and uncertain, only fools put off until tomorrow the fun they can have today.” The result is a broken culture of self-preserving hedonism. Kanye appears to have come to a similar conclusion. West has discovered freedom through escaping this cycle of regression.
Regardless of Mr. West’s current mental state, he may now be more capable of being an adult than ever before. He can approach life without the pure cowardice that the cultural-ideological apparatus around him demands.
This world of narcissism is Kanye’s sin and his hell. But he is not alone. The current culture makes us all little Kanye’s, and it is in this, he asks us to assess and reject it. It is a culture of fear pushing us back to the point of demanding the following bit of gratification, the next line of cocaine, the buffering porn video. What Kanye has discovered is that when nothing makes sense anymore, when even billionaires feel their lives are precarious, when politics appears worthless, when human beings become canceled without hope of redemption, when it seems the only thing that will answer all this is death – man rises above by throwing himself on the hope of a living God.
We can only hope that the youth listening hears this message and stop listening to the myriad stars merely affirming their infantile psychology. More importantly, will the religious institutions of our time hear this album and finally begin the path to deep faith after the apocalypse of the selfish society? Will they realize what Kanye has done here? May it be so – the young need hope.