(September 12, 2021). You’d think with credentials like those, the circumstances would be different, particularly with all the criticism hip-hop has faced over the years for its glorification of things considered ungodly or non-mother-like.
Later today (Sept. 12), there’ll be a new album at the top of the Billboard charts: Drake’s Certified Lover Boy, which will debut there with the biggest consumption numbers (estimated over 600k album-equivalent units) of any album so far in 2021.
The album it will replace at the top? None other than Donda, the latest by Kanye West which, like Drake’s, debuted at the top with the highest numbers of any album before it in 2021 and which, also like Drake’s, is the artist’s tenth career No. 1–moving him in a three-way tie for second-place among rappers (with these two and Eminem trailing Jay-Z’s 14) and in a four-way tie for fifth-place among all artists (Elvis Presley also has ten, which ranks behind the Beatles , Barbra Streisand and Bruce Springsteen [both 11] and Jay-Z.
The changeover at the top—and the numbers that drove it—certainly have to make Drake the presumptive winner in the supposed battle between the two rappers who, in the weeks and months leading up to their respective album releases, waged a more intense than usual battle with one another on social media and beyond.
Rarely before have two albums been pitted against one another in a virtual rap battle where the stakes were so high: each artist going for his tenth No. 1 (and no doubt keenly aware of it); each rapper toying with release dates that came and went, suggesting that one or the other may not have been happy with the unfinished product; one artist pinning the album’s legacy (and his own) on his deceased mother’s name, the other following up what was his biggest record-breaking commercial triumph three years earlier (Scorpion).
The new albums were also released only five days apart in the same week—Kanye’s on an off-cycle Sunday, Drake’s the following Friday—with only Billboard’s Friday-to-Thursday tracking cycle allowing them to debut in different weeks, a non-trivial circumstance that clearly benefited Kanye, whose Donda would have missed the No. 1 spot had it been released the same day as Drake’s CLB.
It’s that near-miss, as well as Drake’s ultimate triumph—and the interwebs’ reaction to both facts—that suggest the Canadian rapper has more people in his camp than Yeezy does.
But why is that? Why is it that a talented rapper whose album is dedicated to his late mother, whose latest project is largely in keeping with his recent reckoning with God, and whose album needs no parental advisory label—there are no “bitches,” “hoes,” “thots” or “niggas” on Donda—has so much animosity directed towards it?
There are many likely reasons, not the least of which are technical in nature: the album, which boasts 27 tracks and clocks at nearly two hours, has been called too long; the song’s lyrics (at least Kanye’s) are meandering and half-baked, with the rapper more often relying on repeated chants and refrains than anything that’s provocative or inspiring; Kanye seems outclassed by his guest rappers—none of whom get a featured credit; the tracks feel stitched together and rushed; musically there are no clear bangers; and so on and so on.
Yet, for all the criticisms Donda has received in the two weeks since its release, the album really isn’t guilty of any sin Drake’s CLB hasn’t also committed. Drake’s album is nearly as long as Donda at 21 tracks and 86 minutes, the lyrics on most tracks are classic Drake—set in his trademark paranoid, self-pitying ways, distrustful of those around him (even “the cleaning staff” as he raps on “Champagne Poetry”); Drake’s guest stars offer more excitement than the main rapper; the songs seem all over the map; there likely won’t be any enduring winners here like there were on full-length predecessor Scorpion (that one boasted three long-running No. 1 singles in 2018), and so on and so on.
But what Drake lacks in new substance as he offers up more of the same formula we’ve been accustomed to for years, he clearly makes up for in popularity. He has more people in his corner than Kanye, who has courted unpopular opinions and liaisons and has had more questionable behavior in the past few years than his Canadian rap nemesis.
But what Kanye does have going for him that Drake doesn’t currently is a willingness to take mainstream hip-hop in a direction it hasn’t before seen from a largely secular rapper. Aside from being inspired by and dedicated to his late mother (and including some provocative excerpts of speeches from her), Donda is just the latest of three West projects that are largely influenced by his salvation, the first two being the Christian-themed Jesus is King and Jesus Is Born—released two months apart in 2019 with the latter being billed to the Kanye-led gospel group Sunday Service Choir (who also back him on several Donda tracks). Both King and Donda topped Billboard’s Gospel and Christian album charts, with Born peaking at No. 2 on the Gospel chart.
And, get this: there are currently no explicit versions of Donda out there. The late Dr. Donda West, herself an English Professor at the same Chicago university Kanye famously dropped out of, likely instilled in her son that there are ways of getting one’s point across without having to always go to the lyrical gutter. Any apparent utterances of the n-word (and other traditionally foul hip-hop language)—mostly done by Kanye’s guest rappers—are edited out. His guest stars even managed, for the most part, to keep their own lyrics in line with the album’s God-fearing, Donda-honoring themes, as best as an album with 27 tracks can pull off such a feat.
Yet with all of that going for it, Kanye’s Donda has been the butt of not only critics’ bad or mixed reviews but poor reception by fans (and non-fans) alike. Just look at some of the following memes and tweets mocking Donda, the album.
Yes, there will always be “haters,” and Kanye’s diehard stans will likely be the first to chalk up the current backlash—as much as one can call getting a tenth No. 1 album the result of a backlash—to that fact.
But West’s detractors believe they have more to hang their hater hats on now than they ever did before, reasons that they feel justify their rejection of the rapper or his album without giving it even one listen.
Never mind that the album is the latest manifestation of the “Jesus Walks” rapper’s grief over his mother’s sudden death 14 years ago. The same rapper’s political courtship of Donald Trump for many of that divisive ex-president’s four years in office has alienated many one-time fans and likely eliminated any chance of sympathy from others on the fence.
The fact that West has also included two polarizing figures on this album—the homophobic DaBaby and alleged rapist Marilyn Manson both appear on Part 2 of “Jail,” a song whose first part featured rap icon Jay-Z—doesn’t help Kanye’s profile in this cancel-friendly era.
Then there’s the chaos and hype that preceded the album’s release. There were the three stadium-capacity live-streaming events that Kanye held in Atlanta and Chicago in July and August. There was the aforementioned social media battle with Drake. There were the reactions from scorned rappers—mostly the has-been Soulja Boy—whose featured contributions were excluded from the album’s original version.
Soulja, whose first and biggest hit, “Crank That,” alternated in 2007 with Kanye’s “Stronger” (from Graduation) for the No. 1 spot in Billboard, went on repeated Twitter rants after seemingly being gilded by Kanye for not including his recorded feature on the Donda song “Remote Control.” He tweeted: “U P—y. U really wore that trump hat too. You did a-lot of corny s–t in ur career and got a pass. B—h a– n—a apologize to Taylor swift @kanyewest.” Referencing the famous 2009 MTV VMA incident, Soulja continued, “If u would have ran on stage and snatched a mic from my hand I would have knocked yo a– out live on MTV.”
Ahh, I’m sure we all can remember the seemingly more innocent time when pop star Taylor Swift was Kanye’s biggest nemesis, or when the rapper waged a much friendlier (by today’s standards) album-release battle with then-hot hip-hop superstar 50 Cent.
Remember that one? It was on September 11, 2007–exactly 14 years ago as I began writing this—when Kanye released Graduation on the same day as 50’s Curtis. It was Kanye’s biggest opening yet with Graduation generating nearly one million copies sold in its first week of release. Ye won that battle and ended 50’s short lived No. 1 career in the process as Curtis settled for a No. 2 peak.
That was back when Kanye had just turned 30, only had three albums under his belt and was still considered hungry. A couple months later his life would be changed forever with Donda’s death.
Fourteen years afterwards, West—now a billionaire and a clear beneficiary of the very consumerism he used to denounce in his lyrics (“cause they made us hate ourselve[s] and love [their] wealth” from College Dropout’s “All Falls Down” is a sentiment you likely won’t find in anything he releases going forward…at least not in the verses he spits)—is an unsympathetic figure. This is despite displaying the usually admirable trait of vulnerability as he has openly discussed a bipolar disorder diagnosis, a failed marriage, and the continued impact of his mother’s death—things that, combined, would take down most people.
But it is hard to overcome social missteps like this 2018 statement from Ye: “When you hear about slavery for 400 years … For 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” That statement generated even more controversy (and public criticism) for the rapper who seemingly thrives on it.
Kanye later explained himself: “[T]he reason why I brought up the 400 years point is because we can’t be mentally imprisoned for another 400 years. We need free thought now. Even the statement was an example of free thought. It was just an idea. [O]nce again I am being attacked for presenting new ideas.”
Kanye may be right, he remains under attack. But the persecuted Kanye is still topping the charts, some 17 years after “College Dropout” and 14 years after the biggest career win (vs. 50 Cent) and personal loss (his mom’s death) of his life.
It’s just that he doesn’t have as many people cheering him on, even as he just topped the chart with an album devoid of the trite misogyny, cursing, promotion of illicit drug use and violence that characterizes most hip-hop today.
And despite making an album that is likely his most difficult and personal album yet.
DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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