Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A highly anticipated, late-career Kanye West album was promised on a specific date, only to remain an unreleased work in progress. First, a listening event in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium was supposed to portend a July 23 release. Then, a second stadium listening party for a revamped iteration of DONDA was going to be the precursor to an August 6 drop.
It’s now August 9 and we’re no closer to hearing the final version of West’s 10th studio album. But, as with The Life of Pablo, what we’ve gotten instead is a look behind the curtain in real time. West is described as a perfectionist, but by continually showing the world works in progress, he’s undercutting that notion. On the one hand, that means we hear some particularly messy vocal takes on songs like “Hurricane” and “Heaven and Hell”; on the other, it offers worthwhile insights into the creative process on a granular level.
The latest take on the record is even more star-studded than the first, with The LOX, The Weeknd, and Kid Cudi filling out a roster of collaborators that already included Lil Baby, Travis Scott, Roddy Ricch, and Jay-Z. The production tweaks are a bit subtler but still notable, as West and his cadre of collaborators have revamped some of the instrumentation. (Apparently, his longtime co-producer Mike Dean is even showing West what fans in forums are saying about the record so they can continue making adjustments).
Here are some of the major changes between the two versions of Donda played at the listening parties. The only constant in Kanye world is change, so expect the version that (hopefully) hits streaming services soon to feature even more alterations.
Kid Cudi made the cut. In the first preview of Donda, one of Kanye’s stalwart collaborators was noticeably absent: Kid Cudi, who has appeared on every one of West’s studio albums from 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak through 2018’s Ye, did not grace us with his millennial catnip hum. On July 22, Cudi dampened the spirits of the G.O.O.D. Music faithful by indicating that he was not featured on the LP.
But that apparently changed in the two weeks of additional work, with Cudi contributing vocals to a track tentatively titled “Remote,” that also now features Young Thug, as well as a sultry ballad dubbed “Moon” that sees him harmonizing with Don Tolliver. Tolliver sang unaccompanied on the first take, which featured celestial guitar, likely by Mike Dean.
“I wasn’t on Donda when I tweeted that I wasn’t,” Cudi clarified on Twitter. “Ye hit me the followin week and we made it work.
Kanye put The Weeknd on the long-anticipated “Hurricane”.This is one of the most storied songs slated for Donda. It was originally part of the Yandhi leaks, and has seen a number of incarnations, including one with Ant Clemons, another with Young Thug and Ty Dolla $ign, as well as one with…6ix9ine.
The version West played during the August 5 show features Lil Baby and new vocals from The Weeknd, who sings a hook that was heavily autotuned and performed by Kanye himself on the first listening party iteration. This marks just the third collaboration between the two superstars, the first being “Tell Your Friends,” a track from The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness that originated as a Kanye demo, and the second being TLOP’s “FML.”
In an interview with GQ published on August 2, The Weeknd was asked who he would like to collaborate with, and included West as a name alongside Arca and Tyler, the Creator. “I’d love to work with Kanye again. Especially on production,” he said. Shortly after that, West posted a photo of his call log on Instagram, which included several with “ABEL WEEKEND,” leading to widespread speculation.
“Pure Souls” lost a line that could have been about Barack Obama. On the original version of the Roddy Ricch collaboration “Pure Souls,” West had a lyric that seemed to address his ongoing rocky relationship with former president Barack Obama.
“44 telling me I’m still not folks,” Kanye rapped. Their rift dates back, as so many Kanye beefs do, to the 2009 VMA incident with Taylor Swift. In a leaked comment from that year, Obama called West a “jackass.” (The former president later doubled down on the statement in a 2012 interview with The Atlantic)
Kanye has been addressing his relationship with Obama on wax for over a decade now. On 2010’s “Power,” he rapped, “They say I was the abomination of Obama’s nation/Well, that’s a pretty bad way to start the conversation.”
We all know what happened next. Once Donald Trump was elected in 2016, Kanye became one of the most visible celebrities to don the MAGA hat, and went to the White House for several highly publicized meetings. In a 2020 Forbes interview, Kanye apparently said he no longer supported Trump, though he also used the forum to criticize President Biden (“Obama’s special. Trump’s special. We say Kanye West is special…Joe Biden’s not special.”)
Anyway, the updated version of “Pure Souls” omits the line about Obama. At the very least, Jay-Z, who has always been a close friend and supporter of the 44th president, should be pleased.
The “Praise God” instrumental was revamped. Inevitably, there were going to be changes to Donda that rankled the Kanye faithful, and this was one, judging by negative Youtube comments. One such sticking point has been the instrumental for “Praise God,” a high-octane track that features both Travis Scott and Baby Keem.
The updated beat, in keeping with the album’s religious theme, is more reliant on organs. The original featured swirling gothic synths that sounded almost like vocal samples. The percussion on the new take also feels noticeably less crisp, though it’s possible that is a product of the live audio, and may not be how the studio version sounds.
The LOX are a stellar last-minute addition. Jadakiss, Styles P, and Sheek Louch were already riding high last week after dismantling Dipset in a Madison Square Garden Verzuz that felt like the time Carmelo Anthony dropped 62 points on the hapless Charlotte Bobcats. But then the Yonkers rap veterans were brought into the fold for a sprawling Donda cut tentatively titled “Jesus Lord” that also features Jay Electronica and Larry Hoover, Jr.
Jadakiss has a history with Kanye–they’ve worked together on tracks like 2004’s “Gettin’ It In” and the 2012 remix of Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like”–but it’s been ages since they made music. Jada steals the show on “Jesus Lord,” with an emotional verse bargaining for the life of a lost loved one.
“Broke down soon as I seen him bring the coffin in/Lord knows, I just really wanna see you walk again/Million dollars cashiers check to the offerin’/They can talk about me all they want, I’ma talk to Him,” he raps.
Larry Hoover Jr. makes a guest appearance. “Jesus Lord” concludes with a lengthy interlude from Hoover, Jr., whose father helped found Chicago’s Gangster Disciples gang and is currently serving six life sentences in federal prison. One of West’s visits to the Trump White House was centered on the idea of getting Hoover a presidential pardon. (On the new version of “Pure Souls,” West references this when he raps, “For all the guys that went to the White House and said, ‘Free the old man.’”)
“First and foremost, I wanna thank you for taking the fight for my father to the Oval Office. You might not have been the only one that could’ve did that, but you were the one that did do that. And with your assistance, we can continue to let the world take part in this fight,” Hoover, Jr. says.
“Jail” features a shrewd new outro. The big Kanye-Jay reconciliation track “Jail” debuted at the original Donda event, featuring a verse that West’s mentor recorded at 4pm the day of the first listening. Much of the song remains the same, but a percussive outro that uses sounds reminiscent of prison doors and jail bars clanging that add a sonic variety the initial iteration lacked.
West debuted “Keep My Spirit Alive” and showed us one of his latest proteges. The first voice heard on the emotional cut “Keep My Spirit Alive” is a new one for many listeners, as West highlights the tender tenor of KayCyy, a Kenya-born singer he’s been working with for 18 months. Fittingly, KayCyy told COMPLEX that his introduction to making music came through the church. The 24-year-old vocalist also contributed some of the original vocals for “Hurricane,” though it seems that The Weeknd is now singing much of that part.
There are new tracks with Lil Yachty, Rooga, and Fivio Foreign. Another addition to the LP is “I’m Not Okay,” which marks the first official collaboration between Kanye and Lil Yachty, and also features Chicago rapper Rooga (sometimes referred to as JHE Rooga). The song takes a different tone than much of Donda, with West setting his sights on people aping his style. “All you rap n-ggas sound like me, can’t tell who is who/You got no real identity, can’t tell you from you,” he laments.
The updated tracklist also includes “Off the Grid,” a record that starts off sounding like booming Atlanta trap (Carti makes his second appearance here), but morphs into a beastly drill record with a verse from Fivio Foreign. The production shift is an impressive one, though the version that played is relatively scant on new vocals from Kanye himself.
Kanye added the emotional “Lord I Need You,” seemingly about his split from Kim Kardashian. Donda is full of big emotional swings, from the many songs exalting God, to the newly added “Lord I Need You,” a gutting track that delves into West’s divorce. In some ways, “Lord I Need You” closes a chapter for Kanye and Kim that began with “Bound 2.” Like that earlier song, this one features more than a few clunky bars and dad jokes, but also some real reflection and soul searching:
“You know you’ll always be my favourite prom queen/Even when we in dad shoes or mom jeans/Too many complaints made it hard for me to think/Would you shut up I can’t hear myself drink?” West raps over a stripped back instrumental.
Within the Donda sequencing, “Lord I Need You” comes after the baleful “Never Abandon Your Family,” a free form ballad where West sounds more wounded than he has since 808s & Heartbreak. “Lord” feels like Kanye pulling himself together to compose his thoughts, while “Never” is the all-out emotional breakdown.
The track order has been shuffled. Along with the added tracks, version two of Donda revamps the song order. The first version ended with “Jail,” specifically the Jay-Z verse, but now the record closes with the Vory collaboration “No Child Left Behind,” which was the penultimate cut back on July 22. “Hurricane” appeared on the back half, a smart move given its status as one of the album’s best-produced songs. It may be shifting yet again, per an updated track list on Apple Music.
Other notable tweaks include putting the Cudi-assisted “Moon” as the second song (it previously appeared towards the middle). The sweet, falsetto-heavy ballad works better as a scene-setter. “Here we go, strap in, we up/Never forget all the memories,” Cudi sings.
The original opening track had more of the energy of a Jesus is King cut, with swirling organs and a choir repeating the phrase “We gonna be okay” in dulcet, reassuring tones. The second version’s opener was decidedly more somber, featuring a 2007 speech from Donda West herself, and Kanye trading bars with Pusha-T.
“Mom met my dad back in ’75/Two years later, the chosen has arrived/Holy, Holy, Holy Father/Hold me in a ocean worth of Holy Water,” West raps.