Kanye West's tenth studio album, Donda, named for his late mother, Donda West, will be released on Friday. Sonically, little is known about it, though fans are clinging to clues. West has been pictured in the studio with Tyler, the Creator. On Wednesday, West shared a photo to Instagram showing snippets of the Donda track list scrawled on a white board, including several songs with religious references, leading some to draw lines to 2019's Jesus Is King, the musical pivot for which West won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Christian album. In the photo, West wears a jersey bearing Donda's name and "07," the year she died. This week, West debuted part of one of those tracks, "No Child Left Behind," in a Beats by Dre ad featuring the fastest woman in America tragically not going to the Olympics: Sha'Carri Richardson. In it, West repeats the bar: "He's done miracles on me."
The connection between West and Richardson might initially seem random, but as one Kanye fan account on Twitter noted: "Sha’Carri struggled with her biological mother’s death," while "Donda is a project honoring Kanye’s mother, whom he also deeply struggled with losing." Little may be known about Donda, the album, but the title is already a potent tribute to West's late mother, and a reminder of how much her life and death influenced her son.
I remember sitting at work in a national newsroom in November 2007 when word of Donda West's death crossed the wires: She was only 58 years old, and suffered from complications from plastic surgery. Her death was striking and tragic: I knew, and related to, how close West was to his his mom; that their relationship seemed one not just of mother and son but of best friends. "My mother was my everything," West told MTV News of his childhood in 2005. Donda raised him on her own after divorcing his father, Ray West, when Kanye was three. A former chairwoman of Chicago State University's English department, she was a scholar who "worked late nights just to keep on the lights," as West said in his rap ode to her, "Hey Mama."
I borrowed the song as the soundtrack to my own mom's 50th birthday video. I loved its loud, joyful celebration of what a mother’s love can do: make you feel believed in and truly known; spur you to be your best self and hold you up even when you’re not. ”See you're, unbreakable, unmistakable, highly capable… a livin' legend too” seemed just as applicable to my mom, Donna, as Kanye felt it did to Donda.Kanye and Donda West at the 2006 GrammysPhoto: Getty / Photo by Steve Granitz Archive 1/WireImage for The Recording Academy
Donda West pushed Kanye as he dropped out of college (the very college where she worked), but supported his music, as a manager and frequent presence at her son's side, including at the Grammys. West has called her his "first fan," among the first to appreciate his lyrical gifts. "We were coming back from a short vacation in Michigan when he was 5, and he composed a poem in the back seat," Donda told The Chicago Tribune in 2004. "The one line that sticks with me is 'the trees are melting black.' It was late fall, and the trees had no leaves. He saw how those limbs were etched against the sky, and he described them the way a poet would."
Three months after Donda's death, West performed a wrenching rendition of "Hey Mama" at the Grammys, adding the lyrics: "Last night, I saw you in my dreams/Now I can't wait to go to sleep." I remember this performance, too—the visceral pain of it; watching someone live out, in a public forum, perhaps my greatest fear: living without my mom. Having to go on functioning in a world without her.
West continued to share his anguish over his mother's death in the years that followed. In 2015, he seemed to blame himself, telling Q magazine, "If I had never moved to LA she’d be alive… I don’t want to go far into it because it will bring me to tears.”
In comments about West's mental health last year, his then-wife Kim Kardashian called West a "brilliant but complicated person who on top of the pressures of being an artist and a Black man... experienced the painful loss of his mother." I sincerely hope Donda helps West in the process of grieving its namesake.