At last I can say that Joe Rogan and I agree on something. The Stem Player—the $200 personal music player that lets you easily remix music—is genius.
Released in 2021, the Stem Player was created by Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, and Alex Klein, founder of the gadget company Kano. The device made headlines a few weeks back when Ye announced an unprecedented move, canceling what he says was a $100 million sponsorship with Apple to release his latest album, Donda 2, exclusively on his own player. Instead of listening on streaming services like Spotify, you literally have to plug the Stem Player into your computer, go to stemplayer.com, and download the album to listen. You can also load albums you’ve purchased from other artists onto the device.
The critiques I’ve seen of the Stem Player go something like “I had an MP3 player back in 1998!”
Allow me to clarify from my own experience: No one needs a Stem Player when they already own an iPhone, like no one needs a motorcycle when they already own a minivan. We’ve been able to hold more than 1,000 songs in our pockets for 20 years now, and streaming music from the cloud has only supersized that capacity. The Stem Player is intentionally imagining another way forward for music, less about listening to everything you can than savoring what you do.
The object looks like a Yeezy product, from its rounded form that resembles a pebble more than a box to its neutral silicone sleeve to the unique LED palettes for each track (which Ye curates to live in the same color universe as Yeezy apparel). These choices could feel like a matchy-matchy branding exercise. Instead, they are contextualized within a far larger corpus of Ye’s physical and musical work, as an organically intertwined, unflinching statement.
It’s not the first music player with a soft silicone sleeve; Microsoft’s Zune did this back in the day. But its pantyhose-beige color, coupled with its rounded edges, coupled with vibrating haptics, almost make the Stem Player feel like you’re touching skin. Using it, I’m reminded of experiments by Marc Teyssier, who wrapped an iPhone in an eerily realistic epidermis that you pinched and stroked to control the phone.
“We make tech that feels more like an extension of your body. Soothing, healing, and sensory. So you feel a primal sense of control. Smell, taste, touch, sound—embodied in instinctive objects,” writes Klein via text. “The skin is a blend of materials. The vibrations guide you. It’s about four-dimensional usage, physical and present—rather than a flat, anonymous, and cold pane of glass.”
As for where the Stem Player name comes from, well, it plays stems. All recorded music consists of layered tracks, which allow sound engineers to isolate a lead guitar from a rhythm guitar, for example. But a song could easily have a dozen or more such tracks, requiring those huge honking boards full of knobs and sliders you see in music studios.
Think of stems like a more manageable user interface for scoring music. On the Stem Player, the system organizes any song into just four tracks. Usually that means vocals are clean on one stem, while chords and samples will be on another, and beats will be on another. The fourth stem always feels like a bit of a crapshoot, filling in whatever else is necessary to the song, from doubling up a chord to incorporating more random sounds.
To adjust these stems, you drag your finger over a giant plus sign on top of the device. Adjusting the volume of any stem is as easy as swiping, while the aforementioned haptics demonstrate that the object is sensing you. The beauty of the Stem Player is that its most superficial controls are an intuitive joy to play with. Every song you try takes mere moments to deconstruct through an experience designed to be “Simple. Playful. Powerful.” according to Klein, that turns recorded music into something more akin to building blocks.
“The community explores it together. A shared mythology of joint exploration and creation, like Lego or Minecraft, rather than just the broadcast and receive of traditional media—or the ‘creator’/’consumer’ divide,” Klein writes. “We are blending those two categories.”
To access more complex controls, like looping or adding effects like echo, you have to hold a slightly more esoteric combination of buttons on the side of the device—like the buttons that allow you to change the volume up or down, or skip songs ahead or back. From here it can be easy to get lost, and recalling the quirks to control the Stem Player can be tricky. But when you do, there’s a certain satisfaction to snagging a loop, adding some reverb, and listening—less like you’re using an interface than mastering an instrument.
For the times you get lost or ruin the song, the player has you covered. Just double-tap a button in the middle to reset yourself back to the standard music track. Knowing that I can tweak a track without permanently breaking it is exactly what keeps me exploring.
Notably, this touch interface has no screen. All of its LED visuals are tied directly to the music you hear, like a classic equalizer. As such, I listen to music differently on the Stem Player than I do on my phone. I’m not jumping over to check my email or browse Instagram; I’m focused on this singular musical experience.
When I wanted to play a track for my wife, the object forced my hand. I couldn’t just text her a link; I had to walk over, cue it up, place headphones over her ears (it does have a tiny speaker), and hand her the device. The object caused both of us to focus on this other world by design.
As I was playing with the device the other day, I had the passing thought that the glowing Stem Player begs to be danced with. It could even slip right under a shirt with its bright LEDs, to resemble a beating musical heart a la Iron Man’s arc reactor. This would push the Stem Player from self-enjoyment to self-expression. It should almost come as no surprise that Ye has since teased Stemwear, what appears to be a clothing line that does precisely that.
“Stemwear [is] coming soon . . . it’s time to move beyond gadgetry, beyond the ‘feed’ of media and information consumption,” Klein writes. “We are building an end-to-end system that merges food, clothing, shelter, and communication. This will make sure we lead healthier and more integrated lives. It will enable creativity rather than just consumption.”
I can’t claim to understand where this entire vision goes next, but it largely echos what Ye has said about his boundless Yeezy brand for years. Even still, I have found myself wondering, could the Stem Player be polished with more attention to core human factors? Could buttons or bumps on the player’s surface signal the orientation of the device in my hand, so I’m not constantly holding it upside down (and mixing up my stems)? Could a toggle switch, instead of an esoteric button press, lock the controls so they didn’t flit around in my pocket?
And, dare I ask, might the Stem Player site one day also include a store of albums I could download from other artists? Or would these practical choices only MP3-player-ify an object that is otherwise art?
Whatever the Stem Player is exactly, I relish the experience. I listened to Donda and Donda 2 on the Stem Player like I eat my meal at a fine-dining restaurant. By muting stems, I can appreciate the nuanced layering of a particular vocal or beat—much like a fork lets me dip a protein into a sauce or taste these components on their own.
I’m not going to pretend that I’ve now deconstructed the logic of Ye’s music, or that the sub samples I’ve created are anything more than self-amusing novelties. The Stem Player is not transforming me into the next beat-dropping deejay (I’ll spare the world another!). But it’s a tool that’s vastly enhanced my enjoyment of something I already enjoyed—the same reason I suspect a lot of the world has returned to vinyl lately. And that’s rare.