Vanderbilt students react to “Donda”

Students’ responses to “Donda” are just as wide-ranging as the varied sounds of the controversial album itself.

Kanye+west+performing+at+Yeezus+tour

Kanye West during his “Yeezus” tour. (Unsplash Photos)

Samuel Hyland and Deniz Orbay

It was well past midnight on floor three of East House, and a group of five first-year students cued up “Donda,” Kanye West’s long-awaited tenth studio album on a borrowed speaker. The listening party was hastily thrown together as the album came out entirely by surprise on Aug. 29, after multiple previously announced release dates turned out to be false advertising.

In contrast to the extravagant arena-based listening parties West hosted himself, our version featured a dimly lit dorm room and a shared bag of popcorn. That being said, what the scene lacked in glamor was made up for in surprise: no matter how long the wait, it seemed, the music made it worthwhile. 

This did not mean that the album was safe from judgment—both good and bad. 

“I feel like Kanye’s the only person who can get away with this,” first-year student Sam Shefnie said during the opening seconds of the song “24.” 

There were silent nods of agreement.

Kanye West’s career has sparked a decades-long debate about his artistic merits, and the greater Vanderbilt communities’ response to “Donda” is only a micro-level reflection of this. One of the most charged debates surrounding West, for instance, is a tale of two opposites: either he’s a once-in-a-generation genius of our time, or he’s just absolutely eccentric. In the wake of “Donda,” the Vanderbilt community finds itself spread widely across this spectrum.

“I feel like Kanye’s first albums are so iconic,” first-year student Shaun O’Keeffe said. “‘Donda’ is not ‘Graduation.’ It’s not ‘808s and Heartbreak.’ It’s not ‘Late Registration.’ It’s not ‘Yeezus.’”

Professor Rebecca VanDiver, who is teaching a course on African-American art history this semester, shared her thoughts on West’s position as an artist separate from the music itself. 

“I have yet to listen to ‘Donda’ but have been following news of the record and the publicity blitz leading up to its release. It is intriguing to me that artists like Kanye, and I would put Jay-Z into this category as well, are attaching themselves to canonical visual artists in the Western tradition,” VanDiver said in an email to The Hustler. “These contemporary artists are pushing the contours of performance art, with Grace Jones as a key precursor.”

No matter what your stance is on the infamous musician’s artistry, “Donda” holds just as much long-term weight in the music industry as it does momentary value.

“I’d have to say ‘Donda Chant’ is my favorite song, not just of ‘Donda’ but any Kanye album,” sophomore Caleb Boyer said. 

Despite all of the mixed opinions, we found consensus that such a hotly anticipated album has not come out for a long period of time, if ever.

“While certain songs fall short, the wait has been long worth it,” senior Jake Silver said.

Listening to “Donda,” one begins to feel that West revels in the idea of his own genius—an idea mostly generated by devoted fans, but increasingly leaned into by West himself over the past decade. In the wake of “Jesus Is King,” his ninth studio album, there was a point where he was invited to speak at a famous megachurch in Houston, Texas. 

“I would like for everybody to be completely silent as God flows through me while I speak,” he said to parishioners at one point during his address. 

Though it has now been two years since this outburst, this is generally what “Donda” seems to communicate: West is convinced that a higher power is flowing through him—even if that higher power is just his ego—and he would really prefer it if we’d shut up and let him finish

There are several moments throughout the LP where this godlike image of himself results in incredible soundscapes. “Junya,” the album’s third track, is a stadium-ready anthem just as swanky as its namesake (Japanese fashion designer Junya Watanabe). West trades boastful bars with “Whole Lotta Red” collaborator Playboi Carti over a pimped-out church organ that swells beneath distorted 808s; you begin to feel that you have levitated skyward as West did at the end of his second listening party. Features like this one—of which there are (maybe too) many—provide the album highs that West himself could not have achieved alone. 

One of “Donda’s” most touching moments comes at the conclusion of “Jesus Lord,” where Larry Hoover Jr. delivers an instrumental-backed monologue about the controversial incarceration of his father. 

“They told me when I graduate eighth grade, he would be home,” he said. “Then they told me when I graduate from high school, he would be home. I went away to Morris Brown [College], I graduated and he still ain’t home. Now I’m a adult, and my daughter went away to college and graduated—He still not home. Now even more than that, my son, he graduated eighth grade and we still waitin’.”

Another highlight of the LP comes in “Jail,” a favorite of many who first heard versions of it throughout West’s several listening parties. A quintessential Kanye track, the album’s second song seems to merge the best qualities of the rapper’s repertoire. With its omnipresent guitar riff and heavy beat, accompanied by a welcome feature by Jay-Z himself, “Jail” sets a standard the majority of “Donda” fails to live up to. Kanye doesn’t try a drastically different approach in this song but perfects the motifs that the album ostensibly tries to communicate.

Even so, though, at some points, the overbearing pathos becomes redundant. By the time the LP hits “Come to Life,” you feel like you’ve heard the same organ, the same chord progression, the same holier-than-thou rhetoric and the same redemption arc 12 million times. It’s refreshing for the first few tracks—you revel in the sense that Kanye is in his groove again—but the more he beats you over the head with it, the more you realize that you were just fine without him.

“Donda,” as long-awaited as it was, is just another snapshot of a man who is either the most gifted genius of our time, or its most hyped-up troll. Nothing on “Donda” alone is moving enough to change how anyone already feels about West, so the album is by no means a game-changer. If you’re a longtime follower, therefore conditioned to West’s phases, perhaps you think it’s a masterpiece. If “Donda” is your introduction to Kanye West, maybe it isn’t as palatable. Only time will tell how this LP lives on, but floor three of East House certainly found it worth our while.