“We won we won we won we won,” Kanye West wrote in a since-deleted Instagram post Tuesday. The victory he was celebrating? The declaration that his “Donda 2” album will not be eligible for the Billboard 200 album chart, since it is not available apart from the purchase of one of his $200-plus Stem Player devices.
“Big win for the kid. We can no longer be counted or judged,” West wrote on the social media site (punctuation added). “We make my own systems. We set our own value aaaand yesterday’s price is not todays price baaaaabeeeee!!!!!”
The rapper’s seemingly elated response to the fact that he won’t be debuting anywhere on the chart — let alone at No. 1 — was a belated reaction to Billboard announcing five days ago that “Donda 2” would be ineligible. At least it’s not in its present form and distribution model, which may be highly subject to change, given recent-past experience.
West made waves when he announced that “Donda 2,” a putative sequel to last year’s chart-topping (and currently Grammy-nominated) “Donda,” would only be available via the Stem Player, a handheld playback and remixing device that is only available through his webstores for $200 plus $30 in shipping and appropriate taxes.
Billboard ruled that attaching the new album to a physical device counts as “bundling,” a practice that the trade judged invalid after years of artists effectively giving digital or physical albums away in conjunction with concert tickets or merch packages and having those count as record sales.
The Stem Player currently ships with “Donda 2,” the original “Donda” and “Jesus Is King” pre-loaded, and for anyone who purchased the device before “Donda 2” was released, it can be downloaded via a computer connection. Outside tracks are also playable on the device, which has controls to separate “stems” of a song — vocals, bass, percussion and other tracks — allowing users to create their own mixes.
It’s not clear how many copies of the Stem Player West has sold, since he hasn’t publicly updated the figure after publicly announcing some numbers the week the “Donda 2” exclusivity was announced. On Feb. 18, he said he had sold 39,500 Stem Players; although it had been available since last fall, Ye noted a big flurry of sales activity due to the promise of it being the only place to hear his album.
Another thing that’s not clear is whether the version of “Donda 2” that West has released is the “Donda 2” or just an early iteration. The 16-track version that now exists has been subtitled “Miami Version.” That’s understood to be in reference to the playback of most of the tracks that he did at a Miami stadium on Feb. 22, which at first was set exclusively for IMAX screens but at the last moment also went up for free on YouTube and Twitch.
The “Miami Version” addendum to the album title leaves open the question of whether there will be a more official version of the collection, or other variants with their own subtitles — and, if so, whether he might amend the distribution model for other versions — or whether he’s truly done with “Donda 2.”
Critics have slowly weighed in on “Donda 2,” presumably as they bought Stem Players ad had them arrive in the mail. Wrote Craig Jenkins in Vulture, in a review titled “Kanye is Running on Empty,” “Anger is the root of ‘Donda 2,’ but the record doesn’t try to frame the experience in a manner that makes it accessible to non-billionaires, and it doesn’t push the music anywhere new, preferring to tap the expected regional pressure points.” The Daily Beast headlined its review “Kanye’s So-Called Divorce Album is a Narcissistic Nightmare.”
Mic wrote that on the album “Kanye West is a ghost within his music,” adding, “At its best, the album has some of his most compelling work in nearly a decade. But it’s dreadfully unfinished.” The publication reviewed the Stem Player itself as well as the album, with some positive comments: “Isolating elements of a track is only as interesting as the elements themselves, and when there is nothing compelling to rearrange them into, the experience is left to feel naggingly incomplete. It must be said that the player is beautifully designed: sturdy under a soft rubber finish, intuitive even without a display screen. … Still, it’s difficult to imagine it becoming any sort of coveted consumer item given its lack of significant memory, the ubiquity of DSPs, and the reality that most people have been conditioned to expect their music to live on the same phone they text and email on. A new iPod this is not.”
Because of the price tag involved to hear the music, few other critics have weighed in. Metacritic has given it an aggregate critic score of 48 out of 100, based on six reviews. The highest score ranked as of this writing — and the only one over 50 — is a 68 from HipHopDX, which wrote, “The rawness of Kanye West’s current existence manifests in music that actually means something, which is the first time we’ve been able to say that about a Kanye album in some time.”