Hey Mama: Donda Review

Sam Landstra—Co-Chief Editor

ATLANTA, GEORGIA – JULY 22: Kanye West is seen at ‘DONDA by Kanye West’ listening event at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on July 22, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Universal Music Group)

Kanye West wants you to remember her name. The world class rapper and producer released his tenth studio album two Sundays ago, naming the 27-track project after his late mother: Dr. Donda West. Donda’s one hour and 48-minute runtime outpaces Kanye’s last three album lengths combined and includes a feature list longer than the number of days the album was overdue (31 to 23, respectively).

Donda’s first eight tracks, highlighted by Jay-Z reuniting with Ye on “Jail,” brood with desperation. “Guess who’s getting ‘exed?” Kanye says on the track about his recent divorce with Kim Kardashian. The rapper’s spiral from losing his family continues on “Off The Grid”: “And this money could never neglect me.” Kanye cries out for his mother 60 times in the opening “Donda Chant,” but receives no reply. 

This self-righteous character turns selfless as Donda’s narrative arc progresses. In “God Breathed,” the egotist boasts “God will solve it all for me.” But “Come To Life” indicates a rightening of Kanye’s theology: “This is not about me, God is still alive, so I’m free.” A heavenly, minimalistic production accompanies these end-of-album tracks.

With this, Kanye comes to honor his mother’s memory in an edifying light. That’s Donda, really: a eulogy to the woman who paid for Kanye’s first studio session. Because of this, standard music criticism on the album seems out of tune. A rating of Donda on a ten-point scale, misses the point. A processing of grief cannot be quantified. Donda is Kanye’s attempt to immortalize his mother: “And if I talk to Christ, can I bring my mother back to life?” It is at times raw and manic, but it’s never once insincere or without love. 

Donda reminds me of my mom.

. . . 

The other day I paged through old issues of The Diamond. Shelved together in the reference section of the library, there’s ten different black, leather-bound booklets and an armful of boxes safekeeping past publications. 

The chronicler of campus life originated in 1957. Now, sixty-four years later, I’m its co-chief editor. My mom attended Dordt from The Diamond’s thirty-third to thirty-seventh year—from 1990 to 1994. She studied biology and played volleyball through her senior year. 

My mom played well—well enough to get in the paper, at least. She can still set a perfect spike today, though I wouldn’t have known it as a kid. My dad had to do all the bragging for her: “You know, your mom was an All-American.” 

. . .  

Mama, you was the life of the party // I swear you brought life to the party

(“Jesus Lord,” Donda, Kanye West)

. . . 

“It only seems fitting to start with the team co-captain and three-year letterman, Laura VanderZee. ‘Zee,’ who has already been named District 15 player of the week once this year, has shown what Coach DeStigter describes as ‘great on floor leadership.’ VanderZee is the heart and soul of the women’s team, providing great leadership and skill in helping direct the team from on the hardcourt.”

(Matthew Beimers, Dordt College Diamond, Sept. 24, 1992)

. . .

A few weeks before Dr. Donda West’s passing, she delivered a keynote address at Chicago State University—the institution where she worked at as chair of the English department. Kanye also attended Chicago State before dropping out after a year. 

Dr. West spoke on raising her son and how social consciousness, racial injustice, and black culture through hip hop affected his upbringing: “The first is that no matter what you never abandon your family. The second was that no matter what, you love unconditionally.” 

The address, now known to be Dr. West’s last recorded words, is sampled on Donda’s “Praise God” and “Donda.” 

. . .

A few Saturdays ago, I made banana bread with my mom’s recipe and texted her a picture of it. Hers is still better than mine. Because home is three states and six highways away in Grand Rapids, Michigan, our relationship while I’m at college is confined to these digital spaces.

My mom texts me pictures from home too, but my favorite picture of her hangs in the DeWitt Gymnasium on Dordt’s Wall of Fame. A few times a semester on walks back from class, I’ll check to see if it’s still there. This campus was hers before it was mine.

. . .

I wanna scream so loud for you // Cause I’m so proud of you // Let me tell you what I’m about to do // I know I act a fool, but // I promise you I’m going back to school // I appreciate what you allowed for me // I just want you to be proud of me 

(“Hey Mama,” Late Registration, Kanye West)

. . . 

On Nov. 10, 2007, Dr. Donda West passed away from coronary artery disease and multiple post-operative complications from cosmetic surgery. 

The week following, Kanye performed “Hey Mama,” a tribute song to Dr. West. In a stadium of thousands, he struggled to sing the hook. At the first verse, Kanye fell to his knees in tears, clutching the standing microphone above him. 

. . . 

I don’t text my mom as often as I should. She writes me updates from home too, but I don’t write her back. I know she doesn’t expect me to, either, but that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t like to hear from me. 

This past Sunday, my mom and I drafted our fantasy football teams together over video chat. She’s taught me everything I know about that sport. At six years old, we watched Detroit Lions games together on the basement couch. She’d cut coupons, I’d ask what the line of scrimmage was. When the NFL season starts this weekend, we’ll give each other our annual scouting report on the Lions. 

Kanye West lost his mom in 2007. I’m thankful to still have mine. Donda helps me appreciate her more. I’ll see you in five weeks, mom.

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