Just because Kanye West (mostly) stopped using all caps in his Instagram captions doesn’t mean he intends to make the release of Donda 2 any less noisy. Last Thursday, Ye announced the new album will not be available on any streaming service: not Amazon, not Tidal, not Spotify, and most contentiously not Apple, which West says offered him $100 million dollars that he turned down. (It’s not clear what that $100 million was for exactly, though it's worth noting Apple Music had the exclusive streaming rights to last years’ Donda listening parties, which set streaming records for the platform.)
Driving this decision is the idea of ownership, a recent theme in West’s ever-evolving mission statement. Ye kicked off February by announcing “Black Future Month,” a rebrand of the annual observance that he feels is an antiquated way of honoring the Black community. This month he also hosted a brunch for prominent Black members of the media, while his new head of Donda Sports, NFL wide receiver Antonio Brown, made public pleas to buy the Denver Broncos. So it’s certainly more than just good timing that, according to a press release sent out on Saturday, Donda 2 will be the first album of Ye’s to be released independently, and not under the umbrella of Def Jam/Universal Music Group.
But the endgame here isn’t West’s own version of a digital streaming service; nothing Ye does is ever quite that obvious. Instead, Donda 2 will only be available on a pocket-sized, literally rock-inspired device called the Stem Player, which first dropped alongside the original Donda last fall and lets people manipulate songs by isolating elements, allowing them to be sped up/slowed down, reversed, and even looped.
In an age when tech companies are racing to scoop up real estate in the metaverse, trying to change the music industry through a physical device would appear challenging enough, even for a man who revels in conquering the impossible. But according to the co-creator of the Stem Player, Alex Klein, simply giving fans a fun new way to play around with music barely scratches the surface of what Kanye hopes to accomplish with it.
Made in collaboration with Klein’s company Kano, the Stem Player is supposed to represent the beginning of a seismic shift in how not just music, but content in general, is created, distributed, consumed, and enjoyed. “We are ready for a radical break with the existing paradigm, but one that brings more people in and speaks to the human spirit that we’ve forgotten,” Klein told GQ over the phone as he was rushing to a flight to Miami, where on Tuesday Donda 2 will debut during a live performance at LoanDepot Park.
Transparency is not just a feature of Klein’s philosophy, it is his philosophy. Before the Stem Player, Kano was most known for making easy-to-build, literally see-through computers, and now Ye’s fully embraced this ethos. On Friday, February 18, he posted a screenshot taken from one of Kano’s company Slack channels that revealed the most up-to-date sales figures for the Stem Player in hour-by-our detail. At the time of the post, over 6,000 Stem Players had been sold in the previous 24 hours—translating to $1.3 million in sales at $200 per unit.