Kanye West, pop’s prevailing folk hero, returns with Donda spectacle


It’s a certain kind of superstar who can hire out Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium, home of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons which seats over 70,000, and attract millions more on an Apple Music livestream for a mere album listening session. But well, Kanye West is that kind.

Following a hastily announced release this week, the rapper on Friday hosted a preview of his tenth studio album Donda, an album named for his late mother and delayed since last year. If there was any concern that the heart-on-sleeve antics that had forced him to briefly step away from the public spotlight (the sort of missteps that urged his ex-wife to ask the world to give him a break) may have dented his following, the intense enthusiasm around the preview would’ve quelled that.

For an artist who famously insisted we should be “honoured” by his lateness, it was perhaps to be expected the event started over 90 minutes after its advertised time. Echoing the endless tinkering that met 2016’s The Life of Pablo even weeks after its release, images shared on social media showed West hunched over his laptop behind the scenes at the stadium, tweaking a tracklist just hours ahead of its debut. (Showing his up-to-the-second approach one track name-dropped Wednesday’s NBA Finals, Ye name-checking Giannis Antetokounmpo and boasting that he’s “rolling with the Bucks”).

Kanye West and his mother Donda, pictured in February 2006.

Kanye West and his mother Donda, pictured in February 2006.Credit:AP

When he finally appeared in the stadium, it was almost superfluous. Dressed in a red leather suit, like Eddie Murphy in Raw, he simply stalked alone up and down the field, mouthing his own lyrics here and there and occasionally dropping to his knees in demonstrative prayer when one of the songs got a bit church-y – which, considering West’s last album was his Grammy-winning born-again pivot Jesus Is King, was thankfully not as often as may have been expected.

In a pop culture landscape so attuned to historical narratives, the tragedy of West’s mother’s death – she died in November 2007 at 58 from complications following cosmetic surgery – has long been seen as a defining point in his pop persona, the hero’s sacrifice or, to put it even more crassly, a cosmic Faustian pay-off of sorts, her death coming just as his superstar breakthrough Graduation was rewriting pop’s trajectory.

An early teaser of new track No Child Left Behind in a Beats By Dre ad featuring sprinter Sha’carri Richardson, who was banned from the Olympics last month after testing positive to marijuana use following the death of her mother, plus news that the album featured a pleading song about West’s divorce from Kim Kardashian, seemed to promise an emotional album exploring the loss of matrilineal bonds.

But, as usual – and let’s be honest, to West’s ever-existing benefit – the album appears more complicated. It’s typically all over the place, both emotionally and sonically, another showcase of the eccentricities and contradictions that make him such an interesting artist and the cracked humanity that makes him a folk hero to most.