Ye’s Stem Player paves the way for an alternative future for music

Finally, 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 rod player was created by Ye, Previously known as Kanye West, and gadget company founder Alex Klein Kano. The device made headlines a few weeks ago when Ye announced an unprecedented move, reversing what he says is a $100 million sponsorship with Apple to release his latest album, 2, exclusively on its 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 to it. You can also load albums that you have purchased from other artists onto the device.

[Photo: courtesy Kano]

The reviews I’ve seen of the Stem Player go something like “I had an MP3 player in 1998!”

Let me clarify from my own experience: no one needs a Stem Player when they already own an iPhone, just like no one needs a motorcycle when they already own a van. We’ve been able to hold over 1,000 songs in our pockets for 20 years now, and streaming music from the cloud has only overstretched that capacity. The Stem Player intentionally imagines another path for music, less to listen to all you can and more to savor what you do.

[Photo: courtesy Kano]

The object resembles a Yeezy product, from its rounded shape that looks more like a pebble than a box to its neutral silicone sleeve to the unique LED palettes for each track (which Ye arranges to live in the same color universe as Yeezy clothes). These choices might look like a matching branding exercise. Instead, they are contextualized within a much larger body of Ye’s physical and musical work, as an organically interwoven and unwavering statement.

[Photo: courtesy Kano]

It’s not the first music player with a soft silicone sleeve; Microsoft’s Zune did that back then. But its tacky beige color, coupled with its rounded edges, coupled with vibrant haptics, makes the Stem Player almost feel like touching skin. Using it, I remember the experiments of Marc Teyssier, who wrapped an iPhone in an eerily realistic epidermis that you pinch and stroke to control the phone.

[Photo: courtesy Kano]

“We are creating technology that is more like an extension of your body. Soothing, healing and sensory. So you experience a primordial sense of control. Smell, taste, touch, sound – embodied in instinctual objects”, writes Klein via the text, “Skin is a mixture of materials. The vibrations guide you. It is a four-dimensional, physical and present use, rather than a flat, anonymous and cold glass.”

[Photo: courtesy Kano]

As to where Stem Player’s name comes from, well, he plays rods. All recorded music consists of layered tracks, allowing sound engineers to isolate a lead guitar from a rhythm guitar, for example. But a song can easily have a dozen or more such tracks, requiring those huge horn boards full of knobs and sliders you see in music studios.

Think of stems as a more manageable user interface for music. On the Stem Player, the system organizes any song into just four tracks. Usually this means that vocals will be clean on one stem, while chords and samples will be on another, and beats will be on another. The fourth stem still feels like a roll of the dice, filling in everything the song needs, from doubling down on a chord to incorporating more random sounds.

[Photo: courtesy Kano]

To adjust these rods, you slide your finger over a giant plus sign on the top of the device. Adjusting the volume of any rod is as easy as swiping, while the aforementioned haptics demonstrate that the object detects you. The beauty of the Stem Player is that its most superficial controls are an intuitive pleasure to play. Each song you try takes only moments to deconstruct through an experience designed to be “simple.” Mischievous. Powerful.” according to Klein, this transforms recorded music into something more like building blocks.

“The community explores it together. A shared mythology of joint exploration and creation, like Lego or Minecraft, rather than simply the broadcast and reception of traditional media – or the ‘creator’/’consumer’ divide,” Klein writes. “We mix these two categories.”

[Photo: courtesy Kano]

To access more complex controls, like looping or adding effects like echo, you have to hold down a slightly more esoteric combination of buttons on the side of the device, like the buttons that allow you to increase or decrease the volume, or skip songs. or back. From there, 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 in hooking up a loop, adding 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. Double tap a button in the middle to return to the standard music track. Knowing that I can polish a track without permanently breaking it is exactly what drives me to explore.

[Photo: courtesy Kano]

In particular, this touch interface has no screen. All of its LED visuals relate directly to the music you hear, like a classic equalizer. As such, I listen to music differently on the Stem player than on my phone. I don’t jump to check my email or browse Instagram; I focus on this singular musical experience.

When I wanted to play a piece for my wife, the object forced my hand. I couldn’t just text him a link; I had to walk up, flag him down, put headphones on his ears (he has a small speaker) and hand the device to him. The object caused us both to focus on this other world by design.

While playing with the device the other day, I had the passing thought that the glowing Stem Player is begging to be danced with. It could even slip under a shirt with its glowing LEDs, to look like a musical heart beating like Iron Man’s arc reactor. It would push the Stem player from self-enjoyment to self-expression. It should hardly come as a surprise that Ye has since teased Stemwear, which appears to be a clothing line that does just that.

[Photo: courtesy Kano]

“Clothes [is] Coming soon . . . it’s time to move beyond the gimmicks, beyond the ‘flow’ of media and information consumption,” Klein writes. “We are building an end-to-end system that merges food, clothing, shelter and communication. This will ensure that we lead healthier and more integrated lives. This will enable creativity rather than mere consumption.

I can’t pretend to understand where all this vision is going next, but it largely echoes what Ye said about his unlimited Yeezy brand for years. Even still, I wondered if the Stem Player could be tweaked with more attention to fundamental human factors? Could the buttons or bumps on the reader’s surface indicate the orientation of the device in my hand, so I’m not constantly holding it upside down (and mixing up my stalks)? Could a toggle switch, instead of pressing an esoteric button, lock the controls so they don’t fly around in my pocket?

And, dare I ask, could the Stem Player site one day also include an album store that I could download from other artists? Or would these practical choices simply make the MP3 player an object that is otherwise art?

Whichever Stem Player exactly is, I relish the experience. I listened donda and 2 on the Stem Player as if I were eating my meal in a gourmet restaurant. By cutting the stems, I can appreciate the nuanced layering of a particular voice or rhythm, much like a fork allows me to dip a protein into a sauce or taste those components alone.

I’m not going to claim that I’ve now deconstructed the logic of Ye’s music, or that the subsamples I’ve created are anything but self-amusing novelties. The Stem Player isn’t turning me into the next beat-busting deejay (I’ll spare the world another one!). But it’s a tool that has greatly enhanced my enjoyment of something I already loved – the same reason I suspect a lot of people have gone back to vinyl lately. And it’s rare.