On Donda, Depression, and Doing "The Work"
THIS ESSAY WAS ORIGINALLY SHARED ON AUGUST 31, 2021
It happened again. Despite my best efforts, I have succumbed to yet another Kanye West album cycle.
I wish I could say this realization happened weeks ago, back when the rollout for Donda first began, but that would be a lie. There was a moment around 1:05 AM on Friday, August 26, during Kanye's final Donda event, when I realized I had fallen prey to clever marketing yet again. I was lying in bed with my dog Tulip at my side watching a live stream performance from Kanye West at soldier Field on YouTube via someone with an Apple Music account who wanted to grow their audience quickly while skirting copyright law. The nearly two-hour-long album was roughly 3/4 of the way complete when I caught myself reflecting on the fact it was the third such event from Kanye West in a matter of weeks that I had made it a point to watch. It seems that despite complaining about his antics like so many others, I had followed and supported the entire Donda rollout. I still don't pay for Apple Music, but I did give Kanye my time and attention, which is worth far more. Love him or hate him, he knows what he's doing…I think.
Regardless, I've spent nearly six hours in the last month watching Kanye West process the trauma of losing his mother while also grappling with his mental health in front of millions while tens of thousands paid to watch in person. That's nearly six hours of my attention, which is worth billions in media real estate, all for an album I'm still not sure I enjoy (more on that in a moment).
How many artists can claim to command that much attention from anyone, let alone millions of people, all before the final version of their creation is complete? At best, a handful? Maybe?
Call Kanye whatever you want, but you cannot say he's a fool. He knows how to make us talk, and he knows how to make us think. On Donda, he also understands he is not a god as much as he is part of something much bigger than himself. His inability to fully accept that realization is where the record often stumbles, but as a whole, it seems the lost son of Chicago is finally ready for change.
I don't want to bore you with the numerous fan theories about the Donda Live events and what they represent. All you really need to know is that Kanye has a deeply devoted fan base that has already developed multiple expansive stories and explanations for every moment of each event. For them, these events are the pinnacle of a career that already achieved so much more than anyone could have imagined. He is larger than life to these people, and that's OK. They're not hurting anyone.
Here's a quick summary of what I witnessed so that you know how I've been experiencing Donda:
Night One — Atlanta
While exploring a vast blank canvas stretched tight across a football field dressed entirely in red, Kanye contemplated the loss of his mother and his lack of control over the will of the universe. His clothes were worth more than the bi-weekly check of everyone reading this, but as his fans worldwide watched, he was reminded yet again that no amount of external praise could fix what's broken within.
There was also music.
Night Two — Atlanta
The second event included a small all-black set in the middle of the previously blank canvas featuring select items one might consider essential (a mattress, weights, etc.). Kanye wore all black, as did the hundred-plus extras he hired to encircle his small performance area. His clothes were more expensive than before, this time easily worth more than the monthly pay of everyone reading this, but his fans worldwide watched, and he was reminded yet again that no amount of external praise can fix what's broken within. Kanye contemplated the loss of his mother and his lack of control over the will of the universe. He then tried to surrender to God by having himself hoisted into the sky as his fans cheered, and as he hung above the ground bathed in blinding light, he couldn't ignore the discomforting darkness where he once felt a calming warmth.
There was also music.
Night Three — Chicago
Having erected a replica of his childhood home in a football stadium just miles from where he grew up, Kanye West surrounded himself with people he believes are similarly misunderstood. As Jesus surrounded himself with lepers and those cast out of society, he brought together canceled celebrities that he knew would get headlines, which in turn would give him yet another attention fix. Kanye contemplated the loss of his mother and his lack of control over the will of the universe. He spent more money than ever before, adding hundreds of extras and lavish production, and he had more people looking on, but he still couldn't fill the void he felt within. He tried to give his all, but deep down, he knew he was incomplete. That gnawing sensation in the back of his brain, the one that makes him feel like the world will ever be OK again, refuses to silence itself.
There was also music. Now, more than ever.
I don't know everything about mental health, but I've experienced enough loss to understand grief when I see it. More importantly, I can recognize when someone is doing everything in their power to avoid the work that will ultimately lead to a healthier life overall. Nobody wants to do that work. It's hard, and it requires a level of self-awareness that forces us to grapple with the decisions we've made. It requires us to speak with ourselves honestly, and as I'm sure you know, that is often a scary proposition.
And what do we do when we don't want to do "the work"? We create more work. We take on hobbies or extra hours at our jobs. We spend more time on things that don't require us to look inward, hoping that it will go away if we ignore the problem.
I also know quite a bit about depression. I know so much about it that I've been diagnosed with it at least three separate times in my life. A mental health professional told me I had it within the last month. Depression is like a gray storm cloud that lives inside of you. It rumbles and roars and pours all over your hopes and dreams. It makes everything feel meaningless, including you, end it never really goes away fully. Depression is always there, looking for its next opportunity to remind you that you ain't shit.
Kanye West is sad, not just because he's grieving, but that is a major contributing factor. He's sad in the way where he would probably be very funny on Twitter, but he's too famous to have fun being sad on Twitter. Shitposting won't save Kanye West. He can't do the things you and I do when the darkness within starts creeping a little too close to the surface. He does, however, possess what John Goodman in The Gambler would refer to as "fuck you money." Kanye is a billionaire. If he wants to make the world bear witness to his pain, he has the money and connections necessary to do so. If he wants to literally run away from his problems and live with a stadium where he can make believe that the world at large is not what it is, he can do that. He's not rich enough to do whatever he wants, but he can do most of it.
Everyone dreams about getting rich and fulfilling their wildest fantasies. We talk about crazy things like paying off our debt and getting our extended family out of generational poverty for the first time in centuries. Very few times do we stop to consider what the combination of sadness and a lack of financial or decisive restraint would allow. You could easily become a cartoon villain with enough sorrow and money. You could wear a mask, associate with cultural bad guys, and refuse to do anything the easy way. Being a villain, or at least being seen as a villain, is easy.
But Kanye is not a bad guy. He's a sad guy, for sure, but nothing in his actions is inherently evil. He's outrunning suffering or trying to, and he is pulling all of us into his efforts in a way we have rarely witnessed throughout modern history. Most meltdowns in the public eye are comically overblown, constructed to make us look at a certain product or intellectual property. Kanye West is a real person, and he's really hurting, and we support it because we like the way it makes us feel about how we're breaking within. People make money from it—Kanye included—because we'd rather find some benefit to our pain than work to help each other heal.
I'm guilty of the same thing. Many of the essays I write to connect with the world and promote my so-called brand pull from my personal traumas. Rather than addressing them privately and sharing them with a select few individuals, I choose to work through the misadventures of my life on a public stage. I cannot tell you what drives me to do that, but it's a thing that was in me from the start. All I ever want to do is share stories, whether through music or speech or written word, and I've found the best way to do that is to do so "professionally." My highs and lows are content for you, the consumer, to devour at will. If you like it, I share more, and we never speak again if you don't. It's like friendship, but not. Get it?
And there's a part of me that hates this about myself. Sometimes I wish I could be a pure storyteller. By that, I mean someone who shares stories over beers with friends after working a 9-to-5 contributing to society in a meaningful way. The kind of person who puts in 30 years at a job to collect a pension and grow old alongside coworkers and extended family in a small suburb surrounded by minivans and children who grow up faster than you can imagine. Those people have stories as well, and some people know them. Not you and me. We are weird. We look at storytelling as a craft or art form that we argue is about more than simply finding ways to discuss this thing called existence.
I don't know if their stores are any good. Part of me hopes they're bad because I'll never know what they entail, and therefore I don't want it to be good. The other part of me believes everyone deserves a life of adventure. Two wolves, one body.
As people who love stories and as individuals who appreciate characters seeking to find understanding amid unfamiliar surroundings, we owe each other to push each other to get better. When I see Kanye doing everything he's been doing, my heart breaks for the guy. I don't have his money or his talent or his audience, but I have enough people in my life that love me enough to intervene before I unravel completely. My friends maybe a few, but they are devout. We check each other at every turn, urging one another to seek professional help when necessary. Those conversations are vital to friendships, especially in adulthood.
Then again, I don't know the situation. Maybe Kanye does have those people, and perhaps he chooses not to listen. Maybe he knows how far gone he is, but he still can't bring himself to do the work. Rather than go to therapy or seek some other form of assistance, he rips open his wounds and displays his pain on the largest stage possible in hopes the lights and the crowd and the noise will combine to bring him a brief moment of elation. He's chasing a relief lever that is getting further away with each pull, but so far, he's keeping up.
We must consider all this when listening to Donda or any other release in Kanye's catalog since the death of his mother because his inability to process that monumental loss has consumed his work. One can easily look at his output in recent years and trace the stages of grief as they happen. Donda is the closest to the acceptance step we've heard, but it makes clear that he still has a lot of work to accomplish. Narcissism and self-indulgence are hard habits to break for anyone, let alone someone whose tendencies are rewarded with the exact drug they're craving.
When Donda dropped early on Sunday morning, August 29, I was sitting in my living room trying to decide what to do with the day. I was still texting my friends about the livestream event from a few days prior when I noticed a tweet announcing the release. Despite everything I'd said in all the criticisms I hurled towards everything I'd heard up to that point, I found myself reaching for Spotify. I hesitated at the thought of 27 tracks totaling almost two hours' worth of music, but I pushed forward.
It's now after 9 PM on Monday, August 30, and I have listened to Donda no less than six times in full. That's nearly 12 hours of my time spent with this album, not including the six hours that came from the live events. It's not hard to imagine that I will eventually spend another six hours with this material, making for a full day of my life having been spent with Kanye West's Donda. I don't know how many albums in my lifetime I've heard enough to total one full days' worth of listening, but it's not many, and none of them reached that absolutely insane milestone as quickly as a Donda. In less than two months, I have sacrificed at least one full day of my life to the latest Kanye West album rollout. Yeezus help me.
The worst part is, I still can't tell you whether or not I think it's a good record.
But something I know for certain is that we failed Kanye West like we have failed so many other musicians, celebrities, friends, and even our own family. We see a hurting person, and we applaud them because the product of their suffering amuses us. We don't want sad people to be happy because happy people never make art good as unhappy people. That way of thinking has been ingrained in the minds of artists and consumers for centuries, and I'm not sure we will ever shake it. I know how I hesitated the first time someone suggested giving me medication for my mental health because I was afraid it would hinder my creativity. I remember begging a close friend to quit using drugs and alcohol for the creative process and their refusal to do so because "nobody likes me sober." I remember my friend Justin laying in his hospital bed laughing about a tweet referencing the sickness that would inevitably kill him going viral because "at least my pain brings me fame." I laughed too, and I bet you would have done the same.
Why are we like this? My best guess is that we spend so much of our lives trying to hide our struggles from one another that a part of us enjoys seeing someone else go through the same things we experience without the shame associated with it. We will all lose our mothers, but most of us will not make a public spectacle out of the event. A good portion of us will be diagnosed with serious mental illnesses, but you won't see me writing an opus about it. At best, you'll get another newsletter.
We are all suffering because life is short and painful. We would all be wise to remember that recognizing and celebrating suffering is not the same as doing the work to process the experience and recover from it. Make whatever you want about anything you want, but if you or someone else is struggling, get help. Do what you can to make sure the people in your life know they are loved, including those you don't think are paying attention, because I cannot tell you how much those words will mean to someone. You could save a life without realizing it.
As for Donda, I think there is plenty to love. There are at least ten tracks that I will be talking about and listening to for years to come, and that's more than I can say for most music. Is it perfect? Far from it. Donda is an experience, and I encourage you to hear it for yourself. Maybe you'll come to realize you're not that different from Kanye West. You may not have the fame or money, but you know what it's like to feel alone in a world filled with people. You understand the pain he's going through, and when you hear it, you feel less alone, if only for a moment.