It’s no secret that Kanye West’s relationship with his mother, Donda West, is a key part of his life. Her tragic death in 2007 led to an identity crisis and some of his most heartbreaking and creative music output. His highly anticipated tenth album DONDA is intended as a tribute album to his mother, and was famously ‘debuted’ at a stadium listening party in Atlanta on July 22nd. If the press is to be released, we shall hear the full album later this week.
Musically, the unfinished tracks sounded like something of a hybrid between Kanye’s latter Gospel-themed influences, with elements of electronic experimentation and autotuned bliss. It really hinted at something uniquely Kanye to come.
The lyrical themes on DONDA, as heard at this listening event, painted a portrait of a man in grieving. The visual set-up of an empty, white stadium floor with Kanye wandering around in solo pantomime was striking. The event featured prominent samples of his mother’s voice throughout the album’s playthrough. The most affecting moment of the night came during a track tentatively titled “Never Abandon Your Family”.
The image of Kanye on his knees in front of a stadium of 50,000 with audio of his mother warning, “Is that, no matter what, you never abandon your family” is hard to wipe from your mind. In the wake of his divorce, and considering his own personal history with an estranged father in his youth, the cycle seems hard to break for Kanye overwhelmed by his loneliness, failure as a father, and fear of abandoning his own children.
This moment was the emotional core that laid bare the central themes of the DONDA project – grief, love, despair, and hope, with mother and family acting as the centre of orbit for these emotional satellites.
From his iconic 2005 track “Hey Mama” to the personal introspection of 2018’s ye, mother and family have been a consistent theme in Kanye’s lyrics. In the spirit of previously analysed lyrical data via R, a word search for themes relating to “mom”, “mama”, and “mother” was conducted throughout Kanye’s entire discography. (Erroneous references to “motherfucker” or other off-theme references were filtered out manually).
The number of lines in each album relating to Donda West are shown in the following graph:
Late Registration features “Hey Mama”, and thus has the highest count. The references to his mother are of joyous celebration and grateful love.
Forrest Gump mama said, “Life is like a box of chocolates”
My mama told me go to school, get your doctorate
Somethin’ to fall back on, you could profit with
But still supported me when I did the opposite
Interestingly, 808s & Heartbreak (2008) does not contain explicit references to any of the search queries. However, as Kanye began to slowly become a family man of his own, he started rapping about making his mother proud once more on The Life of Pablo (2016).
The chorus on “Highlights”:
We only makin’ the highlights
Tell my mama, tell my mama
That I only want my whole life to only be highlights
As for the passing of Donda, “No More Parties In LA” is popularly theorised to be Kanye’s way of expressing regret on bringing his mother into the Hollywood lifestyle. As her death was the result of complications from plastic surgery, these lines juxtapose the old humble lifestyle with the new ostentatious trappings of the LA life:
A country girl that love Hollywood
Mama used to cook red beans and rice
Now it’s Denny’s, 4 in the morning, spoil your appetite
As for this latter stage of Kanye’s career, following his marriage to Kim Kardashian in 2014, themes of family and children started to feature in his lyrics. By examining the lyrics of The Life of Pablo, ye, and Jesus Is King, references to Kim, his individual children, his role as a parent can be found. Key examples are listed below.
References to Kim as a wife are usually subtle, with the theme being her expressing concern over his behaviour and absence in their relationship. Retrospectively, these concerns proved prophetic as Kim has gone on record as how their marriage was “lonely” for her.
On ye, Kanye raps:
My wife callin’, screamin’, say we ’bout to lose it all
Had to calm her down ’cause she couldn’t breathe
However, his dedication to Kim is always expressed in his lyrics. In “On God” he raps:
This my kids, this the crib
This my wife, this my life
There’s no doubt that Kanye is extremely doting on his kids. On The Life of Pablo, he celebrates the presence of North and Saint in his life, while also worrying for their futures, knowing too well the dangers of fame and celebrity. He raps on “No More Parties in LA”:
I be worried ’bout my daughter, I be worried ’bout Kim
But Saint is baby ‘Ye, I ain’t worried ’bout him
And on “Wolves”, he also expresses a need to protect his kids:
Cover Nori in lambs’ wool
We surrounded by the fuckin’ wolves
Kanye raps most often about general references to sons, daughters and children on Jesus Is King, particularly regarding how to raise them well according to his reawakened Christian faith. With family serving a central focus in the music video, “Closed On Sunday” features these lines:
Get your family, y’all hold hands and pray
When you got daughters, always keep ’em safe
Raise our sons, train them in the faith Through temptations, make sure they’re wide awake
Often, Kanye would rap about his children and Kim collectively as the family he needs to provide for. (Given that chicken strips were $50 at the Atlanta listening event, this line kind of hits different now).
That’s why I charge the prices that I charge
I can’t be out here dancin’ with the stars
No, I cannot let my family starve
I go hard, that’s on God
Fatherhood & Divorce
While Kanye’s love for his late mother has sustained him for years, it’s only been recently that he has reconciled with his father, most prominently featuring Ray West in the uplifting track “Follow God”.
This theme of abandonment and providing for his family also manifests itself as a fear of divorce taking his kids away. On “FML”, Kanye admits that he has to clean up his ways in order to not lose a divorce settlement case:
God, I’m willing
To make this my mission
Give up the women
Before I lose half of what I own
And finally on “No More Parties In L.A.”, Kanye also raps about the intergenerational trauma of fathers abandoning their children he wishes to break:
For all my niggas with babies by bitches
That use they kids as meal tickets
Not knowin’ the disconnect from the father
The next generation will be the real victims
I can’t fault ’em, really
As previously explored here at deadset, Kanye’s lyrics have been remarkably consistent throughout his career. Even as he has transitioned through different phases of personal life and fame, he’s always been a man after personal truth. Digging through the layers of political/Twitter drama and celebrity extravagance, his love for his mother, his kids and personal family history form a compelling portrait of a man simply trying to provide for his family.
In this latter stage of his career, and with his personal life at a major crossroads, a project like DONDA seems to be a fitting outlet for grief, love, regret, joy and all the complex emotions associated with big life transitions.
I wanna scream so loud for you
‘Cause I’m so proud of you
Let me tell you what I’m about to do
You know I love you so
I never let you go
Wrote this song just so you know
No matter where you go our love is true