Music is a teenager’s game. If you look at pop history, the creative peak at any given time tends to be dominated by people under 30. There are certainly exceptions to this, but they are rare. Until recently, one of those exceptions was Kanye West, who was 38 when he came out in 2016. Pablo’s life– the finale of a 12-year series of eight albums that consistently found him at the critical and commercial zenith of popular music. It’s a surprisingly long reign, but it was always going to end. West’s music lately has mostly sounded half-baked and uninspired, which is how one would expect music made by someone in their 40s with a lot of other things going on in his life rings. And that’s fine: as someone over 40 myself, I’m not going to blame anyone for not being 25 (or even 38) anymore.
But perhaps more than any musician of his stature in recent history, West (who now goes by the mononym “Ye”) seems addicted to stardom – the kind that comes with spending more than a decade to be presented as the greatest artist of your generation, in particular. As his music became less vital, West became increasingly drawn to gadgets and performing for show’s sake. The “Sunday Services” rolling out a disappointing gospel album, the lagging collaborations with disgraced artists, the listening sessions in football stadiums: it all leaves the artist looking like someone out of ideas but who is always trying to find out how creative he is.
This all sets the stage for West’s latest adventure, which is perhaps the most bizarre outing from a major artist that I can remember. (Again: I’m in my 40s.) West’s latest album, 2continuation of last year donda, can currently only be heard by purchasing a $200 Stem Player, a portable music player – slash mixer – designed by West with help from a company called Kano. Stem Player lets you (re)mix your downloaded music as you listen to it, with four audio tracks (“stems”, in technical parlance) that correspond to bass, drums, vocals and section non-rhythmic instrumentation. There are currently three West albums that are natively available to the player (2, dondaand jesus is king), and you can also use the Stem Player website to download tracks from your own music library to split into stems and transfer 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 small light bars that you shorten or lengthen with your fingertips thanks to haptic technology, four small light points signaling that you are at your strongest volume, and a small luminous point indicating that no sound comes from this rod. (More on that in a moment.) On the side, it has a power button, master volume control, and forward and reverse track buttons. There’s also a headphone jack and a small speaker, plus Bluetooth capabilities for pairing with wireless headphones. There’s a pause button on the front of the player that does a neat digital imitation of a vinyl record that pauses when pressed while listening to something.
The worst thing I can say about the Stem Player is pretty much all I have to say about it. For starters, the Stem Player fails to even be a half-decent music player. The lack of a screen (which, at $200, has to be an aesthetic choice rather than a budget choice) means 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 access a specific track, you have to browse the whole drive until you find it, as there is no search interface. If that sounds incredibly tedious, it’s mitigated by the fact that you won’t have a lot of music to sift through. The Stem Player comes with just 8GB of storage, a tiny amount of space considering the size of the files you’ll load into it (not to mention the length of West’s own albums). The haptic interface also causes the player to skip or occasionally glitch if you accidentally touch it incorrectly. Finally, the only way to set up the player, add or remove tracks from it, learn what’s downloaded to it, or do just about anything with it 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 you’re not near an internet connection, but want to make even minor changes to your player on the go, you’re out of luck. . Suffice to say that 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 rod means 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 absence means that, again, you have to refer to the Stem Player website to find out where they are. (My player didn’t come with an instruction manual.) Finally, you can record 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 got an error message. Literally anything you can do on a Stem Player, you can do much cheaper, easily and efficiently 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 is hailed as clever in the visionary and disruptive circles that West admires – the musical version of the Juicer or that of Elon Musk metro for cars. Once you get past the novelty of being able to remix your favorite music, you come to the bigger question: why would you? Mixing music is an art in itself, a painstaking process that has been the work of talented professionals since the dawn of multitrack recording. I can pretty much guarantee that one of the reasons you love the music you make is that it was mixed by someone who is very good at mixing music. Kanye West, a famous and demanding artist known to be obsessed with mixing his own albums, is surely well aware of this. In some ways, I understand his idea of making this experience accessible to his fans, but expecting people to pay $200 for the opportunity to ruin their favorite music is a steep ask.
The worst thing I can say about the Stem Player is pretty much all I have to say about this.
Nevertheless, I did. (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 downloaded three quite different pieces of music but impeccably blended in stem form on 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 Motown virtuoso James Jamerson’s greatest bass lines; and the title track from Steely Dan’s 1980 Gaucho, one of the group’s most restless albums, perhaps the most difficult in history. And it worked ! (It took a while – the time it takes to get a track from your digital music library onto your Stem player is roughly the time it takes to listen to the track in question.) Now, not only do I I was able to isolate Jamerson’s bass gone banishing Stevie Wonder and the rest of the Funk Brothers, I could also listen to “Gaucho” with slightly calmer Jeff Porcaro’s drums and slap some commentary on Lee Morgan’s trumpet break on ” Locomotion”, two things I had never once wanted to do before and never will again.
I feel neglected that I haven’t said anything yet about 2, an album that will likely be relegated to insignificance as long as West refuses to release it on any platform other than a glorified $200 toy. Does the file all good? It depends: What are your mixing skills? On a more serious note, the album isn’t much better than one would expect from a work that exists to be vandalized. The songs are structurally aimless and the production seems unenthusiastic, its occasional inspirational moments mostly drowning in a sea of repetitive, spaced-out bloat. Much of the current iteration of 2 talks about West’s divorce (from Kim Kardashian just over a year ago), and lyrically it often borders on embarrassment, full of deep faux bon mots like “baby, I’m free, like a homeless person,” laments over custody arrangements, dialogue sampled from the TV show Empireand vague bluster directed at Kim’s current boo, Pete Davidson.
Like many of West’s recent works, 2 made me wish he would take a break for a few years, question himself and focus on instrumental music. It’s hard to go into more detail than that when it comes to talking about this record, because the only way to find out what the tracks are called is to listen to them via the website, which probably isn’t. not the way West wants me to. listen to him. Most, 2 and its expensive packaging lets me listen to a guy who doesn’t care about music like he used to, and it makes me feel old.