Music is a young person’s game. If you survey the history of pop, the creative cutting edge at any given time tends to be dominated by people under the age of 30. There are certainly exceptions to this, but they’re few and far between. Until recently, one of those exceptions was Kanye West, who was 38 years old when he released 2016’s The Life of Pablo—the finale of a 12-year, eight-album run that consistently found him at or near the critical and commercial zenith of popular music. That’s an astonishingly long reign, but it was always going to end. Lately, West’s music has mostly sounded half-baked and uninspired, which is about how we’d expect music made by someone in his mid-40s with a lot of other things going on in his life would sound. And that’s fine: As someone over 40 myself, I’m not going to hold it against anyone for not being 25 (or even 38) anymore.
But maybe more than any musician of his stature in recent history, West (who now goes by the mononym “Ye”) seems addicted to fame—the sort that accrues from spending over a decade being touted as the greatest artist of your generation, in particular. As his music has become less vital, West has become increasingly drawn to gimmicks and spectacle for gimmicky spectacle’s sake. The “Sunday Services” rolling out an underwhelming gospel album, the trolling collaborations with disgraced artists, the listening sessions in football stadiums: They all leave the artist looking like someone who’s bereft of ideas but still desperate to be told how creative he is.
All of this is to set the stage for West’s latest adventure, which may be the most bizarre release from a major artist that I can remember. (Again: I’m in my 40s.) West’s latest album, Donda 2, the sequel to last year’s Donda, can currently only be heard by purchasing a $200 Stem Player, a portable music player–slash–mixing board that West designed with the help of a company called Kano. The Stem Player allows you to (re)mix your downloaded music as you’re listening to it, with four tracks of audio (“stems,” in technical parlance) that correspond to bass, drums, vocals, and non-rhythm-section instrumentation. There are currently three West albums that are natively available for the player (Donda 2, Donda, and Jesus Is King), and you can also use the Stem Player’s website to upload tracks from your own music library to be split into stems and transferred to your device.
The best thing I can say about the Stem Player is that it looks pretty cool. It’s a small, biscuit-shaped gadget that fits in the palm of your hand, with four little light-up bars that you shorten or elongate with your fingertips via haptic technology, four little light-up dots signaling that you’re at the loudest volume, and one little light-up dot signaling no sound from that stem at all. (More on this in a bit.) On the side, it has a power button, a master volume control, and track-forward and track-backward buttons. There’s also a headphone jack and a small speaker, as well as Bluetooth capabilities for pairing with wireless headphones. There’s a pause button on the face of the player that does a neat digital imitation of a vinyl record stopping when you press it as you’re listening to something.
The worst thing I can say about the Stem Player is pretty much everything else I have to say about it. For starters, the Stem Player fails at being even a half-decent music player. The lack of a screen (which, at $200, has to be an aesthetic choice rather than a budgetary one) means that you can’t actually tell what you’re listening to unless it’s music you already know. It also means that if you want to go to a specific track, you need to cycle through the whole player until you find it, since there’s no search interface. If this sounds unbelievably tedious, that’s mitigated by the fact that you won’t have very much music to sift through. The Stem Player comes with a mere 8GB of storage, a tiny amount of space considering the size of the files you’ll be loading onto it (to say nothing of how long West’s own albums tend to be). The haptic interface also causes the player to occasionally skip or otherwise glitch if you accidentally touch it incorrectly. Finally, the only way to configure the player, add or remove tracks from it, learn what is uploaded onto it, or really do pretty much anything with it at all is to plug it into your computer via a USB-C cable and access the Stem Player website. If you don’t have your laptop with you and aren’t near an internet connection but want to make even minor adjustments to your player while on the go, you’re out of luck. Suffice it to say, this is not the optimal user experience for a “portable” music player.
The Stem Player also fails in its aspirations as a mixer. The fact that there are only four “levels” on each stem means that your actual dynamic range is woefully limited. There are effects features that allow you to put echo, feedback, or gate on your mixes, as well as a basic looping tool, but these are confusing to access, and the lack of a screen means that, again, you have to refer to the Stem Player website to know where they are. (My player did not ship with an instruction manual.) Finally, you can save your mixes, but I was only able to play them from the Stem Player; there is a “Share” option, but when I tried to use it, I was met with an error message. Literally everything you can do on a Stem Player you can do far more cheaply, easily, and effectively on a computer, which is ironic, considering how much time you have to spend on your computer just to use your Stem Player.
Both practically and conceptually, the Stem Player is like a parody of what’s hailed as smart in the visionary-disruptor circles that West admires—the musical version of the Juicero or Elon Musk’s subway for cars. Once you get past the novelty of being able to remix your favorite music, you arrive at the bigger question: Why would you want to? Mixing music is an art in itself, a painstaking process that has been the labor of talented professionals since the dawn of multitrack recording. I can pretty much guarantee that one reason you love the music you do is because it was mixed by someone who is very good at mixing music. Kanye West, a famously exacting artist notorious for obsessing over the mixing of his own albums, is surely well aware of this. In some ways, I understand his idea to make this experience available to his fans, but expecting people to pay $200 for the opportunity to ruin their favorite music is a steep ask.
Nevertheless, I did it. (Well, I ruined some of my favorite music; I got the Stem Player for free from Kano for review purposes.) Using the Stem Player website, I uploaded three quite different but impeccably mixed pieces of music in stem form to my player: John Coltrane’s 1958 hard-bop classic “Locomotion”; Stevie Wonder’s 1967 hit “I Was Made to Love Her,” which features one of the greatest bass lines of Motown virtuoso James Jamerson; and the title track to Steely Dan’s 1980 Gaucho, one of the most fussed-over albums by perhaps the fussiest band in history. And it worked! (It did take a while—the amount of time it takes to get a track from your digital music library onto your Stem Player is roughly how long it takes to listen to the track in question.) Now, not only could I isolate Jamerson’s bass part by banishing Stevie Wonder and the rest of the Funk Brothers, I could also listen to “Gaucho” with Jeff Porcaro’s drums slightly quieter and slap some feedback on Lee Morgan’s trumpet break on “Locomotion,” two things I’d never once wanted to do before and will now never do again.
I feel remiss that I haven’t said anything yet about Donda 2, an album that will likely be consigned to irrelevancy for as long as West refuses to release it to any platform other than a glorified $200 toy. Is the record any good? That depends: How are your mixing skills? More seriously, the album’s not much better than you’d expect from a work that exists in order to be vandalized. The songs are structurally aimless, and the production feels halfhearted, its occasional moments of inspiration mostly drowned in a sea of repetitive, spaced-out bloat. A huge amount of the current iteration of Donda 2 is about West’s divorce (from Kim Kardashian, just over a year ago), and lyrically it often verges on embarrassing, full of fake-deep bon mots like “baby I’m free, like a homeless person,” laments over custody arrangements, sampled dialogue from the television show Empire, and vague bluster directed at Kim’s current boo, Pete Davidson.
Like a lot of West’s recent work, Donda 2 made me wish he’d just take a break for a few years, get right with himself, and focus on making instrumental music. It’s difficult to get into more specifics than that when it comes to talking about this record, though, because the only way you can know what the tracks are called is to listen to them via the website, which is presumably not how West wants me to listen to it. Mostly, Donda 2 and its expensive packaging leave me listening to a guy who doesn’t care about music like he used to, and that makes me feel old.