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Kanye West Donda listening party
Courtesy of press

Donda 2: breaking down the controversy around Kanye West’s latest drop

Is Ye taking a stand against streaming services with his exclusive stem player release, or excluding his biggest fans?

It’s never straightforward with the artist formerly known as Kanye West. Thanks to months-long album delays, leaks that never made it launch, and complicated theatrics, even his most loyal fans fans have learnt to take any album announcement with a pinch of salt. Or maybe they haven’t – yet again they’re up in arms because Donda 2 failed to materialise as scheduled on 22/2/22.

This time, however, things are slightly different. Instead of fans simply not being able to access the Donda follow-up on streaming services such as Apple or Spotify – or even the subscription-based Tidal – they’ve invested more than $200 on the artist’s stem player, which is supposed to exclusively host the record for an undetermined amount of time.

Besides leading to a lot of clown face memes, this has stirred up the existing discussion about Ye’s decision to release the album through his own (considerably pricy) hardware, instead of releasing it directly to the online masses.

In case you missed it, Ye’s stem player was first unveiled in August 2021, ahead of his third Donda listening event. As suggested by the name, it allows fans to split tracks from the album into stems – isolated vocals, drums, bass, and samples – and create their own loops in real-time. Following the release, the device also granted fans access to several unreleased tracks.

Now, though, it seems that Ye is doubling down on the stem player as a platform for new music. At a recent screening of the new Netflix documentary jeen-yuhs, he even claimed that he’d turned down a $100 million deal with Apple Music for Donda 2 streaming rights (the actual details of this deal are unclear).

Donda 2 will only be available on my own platform, the Stem Player,” he writes in a subsequent Instagram post. “Not on Apple Amazon Spotify or YouTube (sic). Today artists get just 12 per cent 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.”

Obviously, this framing bills the stem player release as a stand against conventional streaming services, which – as we already know – have historically offered artists a bad deal, besides generating various censorship controversies in recent weeks. Should they be worried? Well, Ye did report $2.2 million in stem player sales over 24 hours earlier this week, adding: “We currently have 67,000 available and are making 3,000 a day.”

However, critics argue that the release also represents an elitist attitude that excludes fans unable to fork out over $200 for what’s essentially an MP3 player that (at present) plays a single artist’s music. For someone who claims to be fighting to democratise access to his art – often through comparatively-affordable collaborations such as Yeezy Gap, though these come with their own accessibility issues – this does seem hypocritical. 

This isn’t to mention last night’s stadium-filling listening party at Miami’s LoanDepot Park. While the “experience” was made available to fans via a livestream – on, no less – they were first subjected to almost three hours of listening to Ye’s heartbeat, only to be treated to 45 minutes of music and yet more appearances from his controversial “Jail Pt. 2” collaborators DaBaby and Marilyn Manson.

Of course, any arguments about Ye’s commitment to his fans are irrelevant if his music doesn’t arrive on time (or at all), and they’ve collectively paid millions of dollars for access to material that simply isn’t there. But surely he’s just applying the finishing touches. Right?