Culture Pick | ‘The stage was empty, but it was enough’ at the Donda Listening Event

Augustus Barnette, Contributing Writer


Kanye West consistently subverts expectations. 

Despite those who believed his early albums would flop, he had a triumphant return after the Video Music Awards incident, and West has achieved a career that propelled him to a level of fame unattainable by most. 

West’s frequent gaffes and media outcries have led to people from all walks of life knowing a thing or two about him. 

Whether people are tuning in to recent developments in West’s life out of sheer interest, or to see him fall flat on his face, his audience has yet to die down. This is exemplified by the rollout of “Donda,” his 10th studio album which was released on Sunday, Aug. 29, over a year after it was first announced. The album is named after his late mother. 

On Monday, July 19, rapper Pusha T announced the first “Donda Listening Event” would be held on Thursday, July 22, at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Thousands gathered at the stadium, bought merchandise and listened to the album, but when midnight struck, the album wasn’t released. 

Although more theatrical than the first, a similar story can be told about the second listening party on Thursday, Aug. 5. The album may have been evolving as West and his team were locked up in the stadium, but other than an occasional post on Instagram, and some updates to the website, all was still quiet on the West front. 

However, in Chicago, West’s hometown, on Thursday, Aug. 26, he hosted a third and final listening party at Soldier Field. This event was the most fleshed out, both sonically and on stage, as West rebuilt his childhood home, caught on fire and held a mock wedding with his ex-wife Kim Kardashian West.

They say you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. In this case, West stuck to his ways, and the album did not release. However, early in the morning of Sunday, Aug. 29, he released the album worldwide on all platforms.

Personal controversies and drama aside, West has created  an ambitious project. Spanning 27 tracks, features from over 20 artists and clocking in at an hour and 48 minutes in length, the album is clearly the result of a lot of hard work.

West is no stranger to teasing albums that never see the light of day. He has nearly as many unreleased albums as his released discography. Many feared “Donda” would never actually surface. 

The album has received positive feedback by fans and high charting success, debuting at the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200. There has been notably less love from news publications, most notably The Independent, which gave West a zero. 

The primary reason for this, and a big point of contention over “Donda,” is the controversial  features from Marilyn Manson, an accused sex offender, and rapper DaBaby, who recently went on a homophobic tirade at a show. 

“West is evidently surrounded by a team who are too scared or too exhausted to say ‘no,’ but it speaks volumes of society’s apathy towards rape survivors that Universal would release this album with Manson on it,” said Roisin O’Connor, the Independent’s music correspondent, in the article.  

O’Connor said it is impossible to forget — or forgive — the presence of two of music’s most despised figures on “Jail Pt 2.” 

Although the album includes themes of religion and love, many fans and reviewers alike found this move to be tone-deaf. 

Another point that cannot be glossed over is West’s squabble with the rapper Drake, whose album “Certified Lover Boy” released just a few days after “Donda.” Once friends, in recent years the two have been making jabs at each other on and off, and it is speculated that “Donda” dropped only to compete with Drake. 

Dispatches From Donda 

The last thing anyone wants to read after the media frenzy around West is another 20-year-old rambling on about West being the greatest of all time, but when one forms a connection to an artist, it does not just dissipate. 

At the crossroads of preparing to graduate high school and the start of the pandemic, West’s music entered my life. As anyone my age, I knew West and his music and enjoyed a handful of his hits, but I had never listened to much more than his popular catalogue. 

In the middle of February, there were talks of how grim COVID-19 could be, and as I stayed tuned into recent developments of the virus, the fear was present in my life. After working at a Mardi Gras parade to fund a senior trip, which ultimately did not happen, I put on “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” as I drove to my friend’s house.

It was a good night, and West was the soundtrack. Soon, “Runaway” found itself on repeat daily, even with its nine-minute runtime, and before anyone knew it, the world was shut down. 

Being locked inside day in and day out led to interesting life developments: whipped coffee, Netflix binging and, in my case, walking. Picking a new album every day, or playing my favorite songs, West moved from being the soundtrack of that one night in February to a pandemic fixation. 

Say what you will about buying tickets to hear an incomplete album twice, not to mention the additional expenses of gas, money and lodging. However, the opportunity to see someone who meant so much in my recent life was not something I could miss. After texting a friend and agreeing to meet halfway, the albeit dodgy plan to see West in person was in motion. 

Over an hour late to his own start time, and being misled by audience cheering more times than one would like to admit, West finally took the stage donning a red Yeezy jacket, a mask resembling pantyhose and nothing else. The stage was empty, but it was enough. 

West didn’t perform or speak at either of the events; he just wandered around the stadium, dancing and stopping in front of the crowd on occasion. Being face to masked face with someone who helped me through so much and continues to inspire me is something I will never forget. 

Think what you will about Kanye West; he is by no means a perfect person. He has said and done things that are unforgivable to many, and those feelings are valid. In the celebrity-idolizing culture we live in, it is important to remember that those we look up to are flawed. What I have gained from him as an artist has left a mark on my life, and I believe that is an important feeling to have, whether you draw it from Kanye West or Drake. 

As his own mother said in a college address on Oct. 19, 2007, later used in the title track of “Donda,” “I got a chance to share not only what he has meant to me, but what he has meant to a generation.” 

Nearly 14 years after Donda West uttered those words, it is noticeable through the rollout of “Donda” that they still ring true.