Fire up your Stem Players—the first four songs from Kanye West’s Donda 2 have arrived.
After previewing a bunch of new music at a listening event in Miami on Tuesday night, Kanye released four songs that can be downloaded on his Stem Player device: “Security,” “Pablo,” “Broken Road,” and “We Did It Kid.” As promised, these songs are only available for owners of the Stem Player, and they aren’t on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. To get the music, you need to plug the Stem Player into your computer, go to stemplayer.com, and sync the new songs.
Explaining why he decided to release music on his own device instead of streaming services, Kanye recently wrote on Instagram, “Donda 2 will only be available on my own platform, the Stem Player. Not on Apple Amazon Spotify or YouTube. Today artists get just 12% of the money the industry makes, it’s time to free music from this oppressive system. It’s time to take control and build our own. You can download new music from stemplayer.com. You can play 4 different elements of the track: vocals, drums, bass, and music. It also has an MP3 player available. We currently have 67,000 available and are making 3,000 a day.”
A note on the Stem Player website hinted that more new songs from Donda 2 will be added to the device as they’re finished. But for now, how are the first four songs sounding? Members of the Complex Music team—Eric Skelton, Andre Gee, and Jessica McKinney—shared our first-listen thoughts after listening on Kanye’s Stem Player.
Eric: “We Did It Kid.” It was the crowd favorite when it was played inside the Miami stadium on Tuesday, and it’s the standout from this four-pack, too. Baby Keem sounds great over Kanye production once again (“Praise God” is only getting better with time) and the Migos are at the height of their powers over triumphant, brassy beats like this.
Andre: “We Did It Kid.” Even with the cringe “lookin for Kim” line, this was one of the songs that pleasantly caught my attention through the screen while I was watching the Donda 2 concert, and it sounds even better over my speakers. It sounds really good sonically, and Keem and Migos did their thing. The triumphant loop here felt like an homage to “All Of The Lights,” as well as those classic Atlanta trap synths.
Jessica: “Pablo.” It’s a high-energy track with a riotous spirit that will go hard at concerts or festivals like Coachella (Ye is headlining). It also sounds like the most complete song out of the four. The production is clean, the features are cohesive, and Kanye’s repetitive hook fits the song.
Eric: “Security.” This is like the audio version of Kanye’s Instagram feed over the past month. He’s dealing with very real emotions while going through a divorce right now, and I can’t complain about him putting those feelings into his music, but it’s sad and uncomfortable to consume as a fan. Listening to Kanye threaten security and warn against “standing between a man and his kids” feels like accidentally overhearing your neighbors while they’re having a nasty argument. I understand the value of channeling life’s tragedies to make art, but this one is a difficult listen, and I’ll be skipping it.
Andre: Nothing was terrible, but of the four, I’d say “Pablo.” It sounds unfinished vocally, which is counterintuitive to the beat’s polish. And Future’s appearance was pretty lackluster to me. It sounded like a reference track—maybe it is?
Jessica: There’s no nice way to say it, “Security” just isn’t a good song at all. It’s redundant, monotonous, and the lyrics are uninventive. It seems to be the most unfinished track out of the four. There’s even a moment when Kanye is mimicking the beat to just fill space. The track may have some potential, but it could use a little more work.
Eric: The production is good, and some of the melodic ideas are really strong. “Pablo” has great energy and a catchy melody, Don Toliver’s vocals sound great on “Broken Road,” and “We Did It Kid” sounds like a hit (with a little more polish). I’m getting the same feeling from hearing these songs as I did during the first Donda listening party in Atlanta. There’s potential here, and they sound good, but the verses need to be fleshed out more and they seem unfinished (more on that later).
Andre: No matter what anyone’s said about Kanye, they could never front on the beats. All of these sound good, and I’m still waiting to hear a couple of the tracks I heard from the Miami show on my speakers.
Jessica: Kanye didn’t really deliver on any of these songs, but at least his featured guests understood the assignment. Future’s verse on “Pablo” is a standout—one of his more memorable verses in the past few years. The same goes for the Migos. Their verses on “We Did It Kid” were better than anything I can remember from Culture III, which made me a little more excited for what else they have in store. And Don Toliver’s soft vocals on “Broken Road” were the best part of that track.
Eric: They don’t sound finished. Kanye mumbles through some of his verses, hashing out ideas as if they were still reference tracks, and most of them feel incomplete. A song like “Broken Road” starts off strongly, with a Don Toliver chorus and a verse from Kanye, but then it ends abruptly before any additional verses. Alex Klein, the co-inventor of the Stem Player, hinted that songs will be updated as time goes on, so there’s still hope that these are just work-in-progress drafts, and they’ll be finished eventually. “Official Donda song versions on Stem Player only. Always updated,” Klein tweeted. “Anywhere else, you’re not getting the vision, or the latest versions.”
Andre: “Helpin’ Ye find Kim in the black double M Benz.” I remember when Offset leveraged his fame to pressure Cardi B to get back with him, so it’s not surprising he’d say this. It’s still a weird thing to say, though. I feel like most rap consumers aren’t mature enough to realize how manipulative that is, but it’s very indicative of a climate where men feel like women can’t move on if the man doesn’t want to—but on the flip side boast about running through women indiscriminately. This line is especially cringey considering how obsessive and borderline unhinged Kanye’s posts had gotten over the past couple weeks.
Jessica: I hate to say it, but Kanye’s verses are the worst parts of these songs. All four songs sound like they’re in different stages of completion, and I think that mostly due to Kanye’s creation process at the moment. The features sound great and the production has a lot of potential, but Kanye seems scattered. His verses are abstract and sound as if he went into the booth and laid down filler words over the beat, but forgot to go back and sub in real verses after the fact.
Eric: It was a cool experience. The songs were uploaded to stemplayer.com about ten minutes before I was supposed to get on a flight, so I was worried it would be difficult to actually get the music on the device, but the process was actually very seamless. It only took a few minutes. There’s no screen or menu on the player, so it’s a little challenging to navigate to the correct songs at first, but it was an enjoyable experience to hear music for the first time on a device like this.
On first listen, I let each song play all the way through, uninterrupted, but then I went back and started isolating different elements of each track, getting a better look at how the music was actually put together. On a song like “We Did It Kid,” I’d listen to Baby Keem’s isolated vocals, then the synths, then the bass, then the production, which gave me a faster and more clear understanding of a song than I would have had on Spotify. It was a cool way to experience new music.
Andre: It was pretty frustrating. I don’t know if my player was glitching, but after I downloaded the Donda 2 songs, it kept playing “Life Of The Party” in between the new tracks, and then it was playing certain Donda 2 songs twice. It wasn’t a smooth, straight-through listen as it would be on a DSP. I had to toggle after every song. Luckily, the song titles were easily identifiable within the lyrics. It would have been more of a headache if they weren’t.
I hope there’s no plan for people to hear the full thing in a sequence, because that’s going to be a nightmare on the player. It would be cool if there was an update to the Stem Player website, where consumers could go online and reorder the songs on the player, as well as remove duplicates. Or maybe an app would be even better.
I do think the capability to manipulate the songs and isolate certain sounds as you hear them creates a fun experience, but there are some basic obstacles that have to be overcome before it’s purely a good time.
Jessica: The Stem Player is the best part of this listening experience. The process of downloading the tracks to the player was much easier than I thought it would be. It was like an even easier version of using an iPod back in the early 2000s. I didn’t use the player’s features the first time I listened to the tracks, just so I could get a complete feel of what I was listening to. The second and third times, though, I played around with the controls. It was really easy to navigate and was fun to see how I could change the tracks to my liking.
Eric: This all feels very experimental, in a cool way. Kanye has new technology at his disposal, which lets him distribute his music in ways he could never do in the traditional system, and we’re seeing the result of that in real time. Instead of dropping an album, he released four (likely unfinished) songs on his own device, knowing he can easily go back and update them whenever he wants. This feels like a natural progression of what he was doing with his Donda listening sessions: showing his work throughout the creation process, crowdsourcing reactions from fans, and constantly updating the songs as he went. These songs have potential, but it almost feels inappropriate to review them as if they were finished versions on a CD or a streaming service. The biggest thing we’ll remember about this moment is the delivery method, not the music itself.
Andre: I give Kanye credit for releasing the album exclusively on the player as a stand against DSPs, but this could have been executed a lot better. No one knows what’s going on. Will songs be dropped four at a time? Will the next update be the full album? Are these the final versions of the songs? Is there an accepted sequence that he wants the album to be played in?
As a pop culture spectator, innovation and mystery can be exciting, but even then, the mystery has to reside within a realm of possibilities. I wish he had posted something to his Instagram, clearly explaining the rollout (or had one of his friends do so). People paid $200 for the player with the expectation that they’d get the full album on 2/22/22, so it’d seem like Kanye would feel some kind of urgency to make sure they felt placated or in the know.
But as Jay-Z once said about him, Kanye is the guy who goes over the hill to take the arrows so the next people will have a blueprint. This release model opens the door for more mainstream artists to create direct-to-consumer experiences and release albums in unconventional manners. But most won’t have a fanbase with the patience of Kanye’s, so they better do it right.
Jessica: I’m not impressed with the first version of this album. Everything sounds unfinished. I genuinely liked Donda, and was interested to see where Kanye would take the sequel project, but so far, I am not impressed with the new music. Right now, this album feels sort of like a DJ Khaled project (his last few albums, not his early successes). Kanye seems so concerned about creating “iconic” and newsworthy collaborations with his A-list friends, that he’s lost sight of making quality music. If this is the state that all of his songs are in, he can keep it.