When The Life of Pablo came out, I wrote a blog post comparing Kanye’s continual tinkering with and updating of the record to software patches. Familiar to PC users for decades but a relatively new phenomena for video games, it’s now exceedingly rare that you will buy a big new title and it’ll just run as it should straight out of the box (or the download). More than likely you’ll have to then wait while a “day one patch” downloads and installs, to ensure the game runs as it should have done when it was shipped. In some ways, the way Kanye released Pablo is not dissimilar to the conditions that triple-A video games are produced under: with a significant financial investment to pay off in their creation, and with a baying public demanding a release as soon as possible, often stuff gets rushed to market before it’s even finished, placing the creative process under significant duress and often resulting in an inferior end result. Unsurprisingly!
The crux of my writing ‘n’ thinking on Pablo was that there was no “definitive” edition of the record. Perhaps one may find themselves enjoying an earlier iteration, only for the version of “Wolves” they heard first and fell for now erased from all streaming services in favour of the fixed version. I compared this to the contemporaneously released Final Fantasy XV, because I contain multitdues, as yer man said. That game, the latest long-awaited instalment in a long-running franchise, was similarly compromised by a truncated development time and a confused set of influences. Fan blowback was so huge as to encourage the developers to produce a whole new ending to the game months later, which again, poses a similar question. If you played through and possibly even enjoyed the story in the initial version, how does it feel to have had that exprience canonically erased from existence?
Donda is Kanye’s tenth album and, much like Pablo1, its release has been both rushed and painfully drawn out. As with most of his records post-Late Registration, the album’s existence was announced long before its release; its title, artwork and concept has changed a half-dozen times since then; and it was premiered primarily through the format of listening parties, which are sort of the opposite of the surprise releases that have been part-and-parcel of record releases by major stars the past five years or so. The first of these took place at the at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on July 22, with what proved to be an unfinished version of the album. West then, bizarrely, holed himself up in the stadium’s locker room to complete the album, his comings and goings intermittently livestreamed,2 with Playboi Carti, 2 Chainz and Jay-Z recording their guest verses in his makeshift studio. An event titled “Kanye West Presents: The Donda Album Release” took place at the same stadium on August 5, after which the album…was not released. The third event was held a fortnight later in Kanye’s Chicago hometown, in a headline-bothering performance where he stood on the porch of a replica of his childhood home with noted pieces of shit Marilyn Manson and DaBaby, and his newly ex-wife Kim Kardashian rocked up in a wedding dress.
The album — all twenty-four tracks, 108 minutes of it — turned up on streaming services soon after, albeit in yet another form than it appeared at any of the listening events. Similar events were held before the release of The Life of Pablo and Ye, and Jesus is King premiered with a choir-lead concert livestreamed to cinemas.3 Kanye fans are used to the trickle of rumour and hearsay about his recording process, through leaks and interviews with featured artists. The Donda debacle feels like a different thing to the iterative process of Pablo’s release, however. In a zero-star review for The Hollywood Reporter, Jonny Coleman dismissed the record as “disposable and forgettable, like so much of culture spat down to us during COVID.” Which, sure. Kanye has failed to successfully deliver maximalism on the scale of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy for eleven years now;4 he smartly went for the exact opposite for follow-up Yeezus, employing Rick Rubin to strip out the majority of the instrumentation a week before release, resulting in a sparse and often punishing album that’s likely to go down as his last properly good record.
While the sprawl of Pablo could be compared to video game patches, Donda resembles nothing more than Kanye’s Twitter presence, and the approach many of us — brain worms or otherwise — have to posting. West has been a significant proponent of loose tweeting, chatting occassional libellous nonsense, shitposting, then disappearing periodically from the platform and purging all of his archived tweets. Being so defiantly in the public eye, most of his greatest hits are screenshotted and disseminated regardless; this is the same process through which everyone from footballers to filmmakers to youth PCCs have their careers derailed, when “problematic” statements of the past resurface.
“The internet’s not written in pencil, it’s written in ink” is a good line from The Social Network but, as with much in that film and most things Aaron Sorkin writes, it’s the sort of snappy aphorism that, when held up to any sort of scrutiny, is actually bollocks. As Risin Liberd notes in her book The Disconnect, “Facebook helped establish the confessional, earnest tone that came to define 2000s and 2010s social media: a sense of the internet as a confession box, where writing’s worth depended on its apparently ‘raw’ and ‘searing’ veracity.” We’re now over a decade into that cycle of online communication, and have become self-aware. Sure, you can often receive acclaim for letting it all hang out, and West’s volatile public profile often hinges on that pemdulum swing. Yet we now know that it’s possible to go too far, to cherry-pick which things we’re turthful-to-a-fault about; what will or will not get you cancelled. Even if you don’t know, and it seems Kanye often isn’t aware/doesn’t care, and for all the reputations which have been damaged by the internet, and social media in particular, it is still relatively easy to cover up the tracks of your web presence. Multiple services are available which, when provided with your logins, will delete all your old posts. Blogs and websites can be deleted with a few button clicks. If nobody bothered to save a copy, or they were overlooked by the Internet Archive’s spiders, they then disappear forever.
That’s part of the allure of posting horny, stupid or spicy on main: setting aside followers trigger-happy with the Alt+PrntScn, you can immediately erase whatever you said when your cooler head prevails. Or you can not, and double down on what you said previously. Or you can reply or retweet what you said, to try and provide extra context or elucidate. Or you can deny that things happened at all, even when there’s evidence. We’re increasingly reliant on the internet to serve as an outsourced cultural memory, but it’s near-impossible to parse once the subjects your interested in have ceased to provide clout, and the internet itself is irreversibly rotting. Either way, you get the initial thrill of “searing veracity” before being able to immediately retract your statement. It’s the best of both worlds, but also results in you saying a lot and then nothing. Which is Donda all over.
This is the experience of most people online, the seeming contradiction of living in public and nobody paying attention. Those who are successfully “cancelled” for online transgressions are neither the civilians nor the truly famous, but the unfortunates caught in the middle. This is because Twitter, along with providing an unparalleled access to celebrities, also sort of democratises celebrity, or at least the part where your fortunes are in almost complete control of a fickle public. Anyone can become the main character of Twitter, famo or otherwise. In a disappointed sigh of an initial review, Pitchfork’s Matthew Ismael Ruiz wrote of Donda, “after three massive productions, weeks of breathless coverage and social media saturation, is this really all he has to say?” Well, yeah. As anyone can be famous for fifteen people on Twitter, so too is it a platform for the profound and the profane, the high and low, all — again — democratised, so there’s little to differntiate the tossed off from the massive productions. Everything’s the same, and everything can change between one or the other. As a wise man once said, there’s actually zero difference between good and bad things.
Donda, then, best resembles a tweet storm of this sort: like someone getting midway through a thread, realising they misspelt a crucial word early on, and deleting them all to start again, except some people already saw and/or retweeted it. Ryan Broderick even cited flipping between streams of the listening events and the Twitter response being a key part of the experience. Like Kanye chatting breeze about his family-in-law, or divorce proceedings, or mental health, or his label allegedly releasing this record without his express permission. Donda is an album which will no doubt change more in the coming weeks; shortened or lenghtened, amended, edited, or removed entirely. Its shifts between registers, between faux-profundity and the scatalogical, is familiar to anyone who, say, follows a leftist shitposter who alternates between sober analyses of the political situation in Venezuela and clowning on Mike “Milky” Gapes. And Coleman is probably right: far from being the inspirational titan of hip-hop he once was, this album will once again see Kanye being the main character of Twitter for a week or so, before disappearing, without lingering in the memory at all. It will have an impact until it doesn’t. Onto the next one.
1. And unlike Ye and Jesus is King, which nobody has ever listened to through more than once.↩
2. The virgin Kanye West, nose clogged with the smell of foot fungus, versus the chad Frank Ocean, enjoying some woodwork↩
3. As an old man, I remember when Kanye uploaded demos of “Love Lockdown” and “Robocop” to his blog during the recording of 808s and Heartbreak, complete with mumbled scratch vocals and shitty samples↩
4. “Waves” would, I guess, be the only exception?↩