Kanye West’s Donda 2 : Unfinished & Uncomfortable (+ Stem Player Review)

Mere months after his patience-testing yet rewarding opus Donda, Kanye West is back with its lazily titled sequel, Donda 2. Don’t expect to find it on streaming platforms or in record stores, however. The artist now legally known as Ye instead independently released it exclusively on the $200 Stem Player, a proprietary, Yeezy Tech- and Kano-developed device that allows users tactile interaction with his last three albums (more about that later). Most of Donda 2’s media coverage centers around the Stem Player situation, how everyone thinks Kanye is “crazy” to so highly value his art by making everyone pay $200 for it. Yet, Donda 2 itself doesn’t cost $200; it’s a free download accessible only via the $200 Stem Player, meaning he doesn’t technically have to pay anyone royalties or sample clearances. Kanye would tell you he’s winning, except it’s his own game designed to eliminate any threat of competition. (Either way, Billboard ruled the album ineligible to chart. Kanye’s decision to keep Donda 2 off streaming is immensely respectable, though I wish he also put out a more convenient $20 CD or tape.)

What many gloss over, though, is that Donda 2 is a rushed, clearly unfinished, and emotionally difficult legal obligation of a record. See, Kanye held a disastrous Miami listening event/concert on February 22 (2.22.22) and promised a Stem Player-exclusive album release that same day, but as usual, he was late. The next day, he released four tracks under the Donda 2 title, because someone must’ve reminded him that selling all those Stem Players and releasing nothing could easily get him sued (it’s happened before). The day after that, he added another twelve songs, but within hours deleted one of those additions. The device suits Kanye’s work method—he can force out updates as he pleases, fulfilling The Life Of Pablo’s “living breathing changing creative expression” concept more directly than ever before. The difference is that Pablo’s initial release had real songs, substantive lyrics, and full-sounding production, while Donda 2 has mumble verses and scraps of songs that only hint at their full potential. In the month since its initial full release, he’s made mostly negligible tweaks instead of the major overhaul it desperately needs. Further, the album comes amidst an almost unrelenting Instagram drama: publicized child custody issues with ex-wife Kim Kardashian, shots towards Kardashian’s new boyfriend Pete Davidson, needlessly vicious attacks at Kid Cudi and Billie Eilish (among many others), borderline stalker-like posts about Kardashian, and derogatory comments aimed at Trevor Noah, which finally got Kanye a 24-hour account suspension. (He’ll occasionally post more digestible content, such as studio photos with Beach House or outfits from his upcoming Balenciaga/Yeezy/Gap collaboration.)

Executive produced by Future, Donda 2 is a guest-reliant mess. While it still features glimpses of Kanye’s genius construction, he’s barely here, and when he is, he’s a burdening presence; I can’t imagine these songs being played at “a funeral, childbirth, graduation, [or] a wedding.” “Too Easy” sounds genuinely futuristic, with hectic 808s and darkly kaleidoscopic synths providing a foundation for Ye’s emotive vocoder, except he doesn’t have enough actual verses. “Sci Fi” has absolutely stunning, electronically processed string samples, yet wastes the first minute and a half by sampling Kardashian’s SNL monologue (of course leaving out the divorce quote) and including an overly long Sean Leon feature. When Kanye enters, he basically has an emotional breakdown right in front of you, to the point where he spills all the grimy details, can’t function, and therefore leaves the record unfinished. It’s like sitting with your stoned friend who’s having difficulty accepting the failure of their relationship; you can’t really do anything to help, but you feel obligated to sit there for emotional support. Yet Kanye toes the line between being vulnerable and inflicting his pain on his audience, which I critically, morally, and personally find very uncomfortable.

Elsewhere on the album, Kanye delivers often-repetitive napkin scribblings of lyrics about child custody issues (“True Love”), his short-lived relationship with actor Julia Fox (“Flowers”), and how he stopped buying Louis Vuitton bags after Virgil Abloh’s death (“Louie Bags”). He also disses UMG chairman Lucian Grainge (“Selfish”), claims his status as the “only billionaire you know that’s sleeping on a couch” (“First Time In A Long Time”), and over said custody issues again threatens Kim Kardashian (“Security”). Some of it’s quite confusing; on “Happy,” he follows a passable Future verse with lines about being unhappy, wishing/demanding to take Virgil’s job at LV, and… wanting to buy Uber? It’s incomprehensibly mumbled and disjointed, as is Ye’s verse on the since-deleted, Talking Heads-sampling “Keep It Burning.” (If Donda 2 is Kanye’s nadir as Never Let Me Down was David Bowie’s, then “Keep It Burning” is his “Too Dizzy.”) “Get Lost” is an uneventful a cappella vocoder exercise, “Broken Road” has half-baked lyrics comparing Kanye’s difficult family situation to a homeless person’s lack of freedom, and Travis Scott and Future far outshine his JESUS IS KING-esque complaints about Satan splitting his family on “Pablo.” The record’s most conventionally “finished” songs are “City Of Gods” (featuring Fivio Foreign and Alicia Keys) and “Eazy” (The Game’s recent single, which features Ye’s infamous “God saved me from that crash/Just so I could beat Pete Davidson’s ass” line), but those were originally built primarily for Fivio and The Game, not Kanye. Other artists would be universally clowned for some of these lyrics, yet Kanye still has fans defending his every last petty and/or nonsensical utterance.

Additionally, Donda 2 lacks Kanye’s typical expert curation of sounds and guests. Sonically, it can’t tell if it wants to be a relatively straightforward pop rap album with trap and drill beats, or an icy, industrial epic for a dystopian future where 2001: A Space Odyssey looks like realistic fiction and Donda 2 is the last gasp of real human emotion as we currently know it. “Security”’s distorted synths sound appropriately menacing, the minimalist synthetic strings and piano on “Lord Lift Me Up” are bleak, and “First Time In A Long Time”’s synth bass and ghostly organ complement Kanye’s melancholic vocals. On the other hand, “We Did It Kid” has obnoxious, celebratory horns over an average trap beat, the piano- and 808-based instrumental on “Selfish” sounds outdated by a decade, and “Louie Bags”’ drums and synthscapes don’t match very well. As far as the featured guests, Travis Scott and Future sound charismatic on “Pablo,” though Jack Harlow’s “Louie Bags” verse is unnecessary, Vory’s yearning vocals fail to carry “Lord Lift Me Up”’s beautiful but exhaustingly static two minutes, XXXTentacion’s posthumously featured “True Love” and “Selfish” hooks conjure indifference, and no one in 2022 asked for Soulja Boy’s feature on “First Time In A Long Time.”

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Donda 2 is a brilliantly forward-thinking work, ushering in a new era of repetitive songs, unfinished art, and celebrities whose creations publicize their every last personal struggle. It breaks the fourth wall between artist and audience, and consequently seems like a natural conclusion to the social media era’s increasingly interactive nature. But as a piece of music, Donda 2 is rough, and as a Kanye fan, I find it difficult to listen to. Beneath the mumbled nonsense, haphazard curation, and public bickering is the sound of a man who’s lonely and desperately crying for help, and it makes you wonder if you should even be listening to it. Because of all this, it’s impossible to assign Donda 2 a numerical rating of any substance; the 7/10 music score is really an arbitrary placeholder to represent the few brilliant moments within an immensely uncomfortable listening experience. Right now, I’d much rather see Kanye take a break for his own well-being than see or hear more new content.

The Stem Player

The only way to officially hear Donda 2 is on the Yeezy Tech/Kano Stem Player, first released during last year’s Donda rollout. It divides songs into four stems (essentially consolidated, mixed multitracks) of vocals, drums, bass, and samples/other instruments; available as official, properly split 44.1kHz/16bit stem downloads are JESUS IS KING, Donda (Deluxe), and Donda 2, though an AI algorithm automatically splits other tracks into stems. (The device supports MP3, AAC, and the four major lossless PCM formats.) Stems are adjustable via four touch-sensitive light sliders, users can save files of their remixes, and effects include real-time reversing, looping, and pitch-shifting. The soft, flesh-colored Stem Player fits into the palm of a hand, and its built-in 97dB speaker, 3.5mm output, USB-C power and data port, and Bluetooth capability add to its ease of use. However, the 8GB storage feels insufficient for a new $200 item; it can’t even fit the three available Kanye albums all at once.

The idea behind the Stem Player is that users can interact with music rather than passively listen to it. In reality, it doesn’t exactly fulfill that mission. For the average listener, it’s an expensive novelty item that’s inconvenient for normal listening (even “Sci Fi” collaborator Sean Leon resorted to pirating Donda 2 on his phone), and for music producers, it doesn’t yet have enough features to make it very useful (that said, I’ve seen people use it as a controller with FL Studio, and someone apparently did an entire DJ set with just their Stem Player). The intuitive touch sensitive sliders/faders light up nicely, though they’re quite picky about the angle of your fingers. Still, the effects can be fun, especially for those who fancy themselves the next DJ Screw or who think they can effortlessly make cool, Dean Bluntian hypnagogic shit in the wee hours of the morning (hint: the Stem Player won’t help you sound like DJ Screw, and your late night Dean Bluntian creations aren’t as great as you initially thought they were).

Unfortunately, the actual sound quality seems like an afterthought. While the Stem Player’s small speaker wouldn’t suggest excellence, in separation and spatiality my iPhone 11 speaker pounces all over it, and tuned 808 kicks really suffer here. The 3.5mm output also sounds pretty weak and the USB-C port doesn’t seem to provide bitstream output, but Donda 2 isn’t a great recording or mix anyway, and appears unmastered. The official stem splits are decent and mostly logical, though the AI splits vary. Ecco2k’s “Security” and Yung Lean’s “Acid At 7/11’ were rather tidy and Yoko Ono’s “Don’t Worry Kyoko” turned out much better than expected, though David Bowie’s “Slow Burn” and The 1975’s “The Birthday Party” didn’t fare so well. John Coltrane’s “Acknowledgement” was the worst split I heard, as the algorithm split it into only two, very confusing stems (but remember, the algorithm splits are based on generalized frequency bands). I haven’t tried uploading custom stems, though I’m sure an update will make that available if it isn’t already. The Kano team is still designing new features for future updates of the conceptually interesting Stem Player, but I can’t say it’s currently worth the price for anyone who isn’t a full-on Kanye obsessive.

(Malachi Lui is an AnalogPlanet contributing editor, music obsessive, avid record collector, and art enthusiast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.)

magicwand's picture

Fremer - what is this doing on Analog Planet? Not a poorly written review per se, but def a category error.

Jazz listener's picture

the name of this website is Analog Planet, not Music Planet. Vinyl-focussed articles only please. What’s next, a review of Sony’s latest OLED tv?

MalachiLui's picture

sure, why not. for all i know, maybe it's got some excellent built-in speaker that us hifi purists have missed out on this whole time :)

Jazz listener's picture

the screen itself is the speaker (it vibrates). The sound is phenomenal. We also use it as a music streamer for casual listening. I still don’t want to read about this stuff here.

Glotz's picture

I can speak for EVERYONE in saying that if it isn't PURELY ANALOG, we DEMAND that it be BANNED from Analog Planet!

How DARE YOU HAVE FUN and review new technology that has NOTHING to do with ANALOG?!? THERE ARE RULES in this world WE ALL MUST FOLLOW!!

Perhaps what we should do is restrict all content to the those that find it 'inappropriate' or 'off-topic'.. IE, when a nasty, maladjusted Boomer logs in, all content regarding the most erroneous, purely non-analog is no longer available for viewing!

It's really in the national interest to restrict this type of content from our more 'rigid members', as the excitement and horror of reading off-topic material could lead to heart-attacks, strokes and a general sense of liberalism!


Jazz listener's picture

to what is a fair criticism/comment by a few of us Analog Planet readers.

I am more technologically savvy than you my friend, I guarantee it, so it's not that I am a luddite, or at the point in my life where I wander around yelling at clouds, it's simply that there are other sites I can visit to get my fix on those things.

Plus, really, it's enough with the Kanye fan-boy shit already...

avb4u's picture

Just read the entire "review" and must confess, I didn't understand a single word, phrase or sentence in it. Is this content deemed suitable for and of interest to your presumed readership? Yeah, I'm gettin' old but still...

MalachiLui's picture

i thought the review was quite straightforward... explains the context, analyzes the music... how much of that could possibly be so difficult to understand? you don't even have to agree with the review or like it, but i think basically anyone fluent in english could understand the information and opinion presented.

Lee Clayton's picture

Kanye stans "reviewing" Kanye's music is always painful read...

MalachiLui's picture

sure, i'm admittedly a huge kanye fan (not a stan type anymore, though). however, i was fairly critical of this record, and i feel like my review was very balanced and focused more on disappointment than anything.

Dubhousing's picture

Love your work Malachi, it's good to read a review of the stem player from an audiophile perspective

rich d's picture

Are you saying that a Kanye West record sucks donkey chow? Shocking!

Glotz's picture

Sentences like "It’s like sitting with your stoned friend who’s having difficulty accepting the failure of their relationship..." are astounding for someone your age and experience. Great insight and candid, honest writing. Yes, you tell the truth through your observations.

And I really can't wait for these Boomers (above) to die already... (Not Mikey... he needs to live forever.) Their rigidity and intolerance are nauseating. I cannot wait until Gen Z replaces all of them.

Jazz listener's picture

who would be left to do all the grown-up work so that your generation can focus on playing video games?

Archimago's picture

Don't worry Boomers.

The Gen Z guy still needs to get past the Gen X'ers. I don't know if many in Gen X gets this stuff either (or care) other than deriving some mild amusement at Ye's vapid narcissism and tabloid-worthy immature exploits.

MalachiLui's picture

and i'm pretty sure that in the 60s, the generations before the boomers asked, "who would be left to do all the grown-up work so that your generation can focus on protesting the vietnam war and taking acid?"

and how did you boomers feel about that?

Jazz listener's picture

is that your generation has no such calling. And I’m not a boomer either, lol. Funny how the kids on these threads always think any comment that calls out their Millenial BS is a boomer.

MalachiLui's picture

the ppl of my generation that i know aren't just sitting around playing video games all day. in fact, we typically regard the kids sitting around playing video games all day every day as losers. (video games can be cool, but in moderation of course.) and the fact that you can't recognize millennials and gen z as separate generations makes your comment even more pathetic.

Jazz listener's picture

just not sure which one has the bigger chip on its shoulder, lol.

Glotz's picture

Because most of them are brainwashed real good. The rest of the generations are too diverse and well-adjusted to be generalized in a few sentences. Yeah, just Boomers.

Glotz's picture

By your consistent comments, you CLEARLY aren't doing any work anyways.

rich d's picture

So, just to be clear - you want other humans to die because of their views, but you think they're the intolerant ones? Charming.

MalachiLui's picture

sometimes this comments section makes me wanna sign up lol (but i won't... not yet, at least)

Tom L's picture

that people get so worked up about some AP reviews. If you're not interested in Ye or the Stem player (I don't care about either) then don't read it. If you do read it, did it harm you in some way? Was someone holding a gun to your head? Then there's the "I hope your whole generation dies" response, how over the top is THAT?
Please settle down and get a grip on yourselves. We're just talking about music here.

MalachiLui's picture

the fact that the childish toxicity in this comments section comes from full grown (often very old) adults is absolutely pathetic. and now that i've said that, i'll have to see how long it takes before someone writes an unreadable paragraph of run-on sentences taking offense to how i indirectly called them "childish" (which they are).

JoeESP9's picture

I'm actually a little surprised by ML's review. I know him to be a "Ye" fanboy because, he said so. Sorry M you're not going to live down your first review of a product from "Ye". You portrayed him as the next best thing to sliced bread. Needless to say I disagreed with you then.

However, this time we're mostly in agreement. The split from KK seems to have had a profound effect on him his music and his lifestyle.

IMO anyone who bought into his special player et al is seriously deficient in the common sense area.

No I don't much like his latest. However there's nothing new about that for me.

Breaking up with KK seems to have put the Kibosh on a lot of his proselytizing. That's a good thing to me.

MalachiLui's picture

well let's just say that his overall discography is immaculate, but this record in its current state is a dud. 2004-2016 kanye was equivalent to bowie in the 70s. but of course, bowie ended up making 'tonight,' 'never let me down,' and both tin machine records, which are rightfully considered duds by just about everyone. i wouldn't say kanye's in his "flop era," but he's a bit past his prime (even if he puts out some good material still). i highly recommend you listen to 'my beautiful dark twisted fantasy.' despite being mastered at an unlistenably loud volume, it's one of the most important albums of any genre of all time, really, and is critically praised/hyped for a reason.

as far as the stem player, it's actually a very interesting idea, just underdeveloped. you can argue against the practicality of it (as i did in my review), but the idea of being able to edit and interact with the musical content of your favorite songs is very interesting. the product just isn't as fully formed as it could be.

LarryRS's picture

Have no real problem with the review as written, although its inclusion in Analog Planet is a bit puzzling. And I do wonder how a player and music with the flaws enumerated could garner a 7 for music and a 6 for sound - what would a 2 or 3 be?

I'll refrain from commenting on the venom directed toward boomers other than to quote George Bernard Shaw. "Don’t wrestle with pigs. You get dirty and they enjoy it."

MalachiLui's picture

would be van morrison's 'latest record project vol. 1.' and a 2 is kind of a generous score for that record... listen to all 2 hours of that one then give 'donda 2' a spin and see how it compares.

regarding the 6/10 sound score, that's for the digital files ripped off the stem player (because people much smarter and more tech-savvy than me found a way to do that). i did not give a sound score to the actual stem player device.

Intermediate Listener's picture

to Kanye West

MalachiLui's picture


Anton D's picture

You have a bad case of the trolls, Malachi.

They won’t rest until you only review pre-1970 reissues and worship their dinosaur Gods.

Audio snowflakes that they are.

Jazz listener's picture

are Malachi trolling his own articles. Just publish them and move on, lol.

MalachiLui's picture

and why don't you read them and move on?

Anton D's picture

You kicked up the snowflakes with your enjoyment of hip hop.

Next time, preempt them by saying there is a vinyl release coming and you are reviewing the music in order to facilitate their buying decisions. Make something up about 272 gram clear vinyl 45 RPM pressings and such. Then, they can skip right to mewling about Kanye and skip the faux outrage about this being hallowed LP territory.

Maybe mix into your review mentions of the 83rd re-release of a Doors album.

Glotz's picture

Ironically, jazz listener just keeps trolling ML and claiming he is the problem.

I sincerely believe that he looks forward to these posts more than anything...

MalachiLui's picture

is gonna have to up his game... i've outdone him this time lol

also, can we take a minute to realize how crazy it is that every time i do a standalone review of a digital file i get 10 complaints here while digital review explosions get 2 complaints at most?? the inconsistency of the grouchiness is really baffling.

Glotz's picture

Actually, I think it's just a LOT OF EFFORT to make pointed grouchy remarks to all of the individual reviews without sounding like a generalized, "I hate your music" rant.

Keep on keepin on, ML.

Biff Jones's picture

And please, no more long winded reviews about someone that most of your readership has neither respect for nor interest in. There are many fine artists more deserving of space in Analog Planet than Mr. West.

MalachiLui's picture

is your fault, really. and let's be honest: i'm sure back in 1964, many people thought that there were artists more deserving of space in music magazines than the beatles and stones, and now look how we view those bands now. kanye's essentially at that level of cultural importance and every music critic of relevance would tell you that.

Anton D's picture

I’d like to get a notion of which artists whose reviews do not twitterpate your delicate sensibilities.

Tell Malachi what he can review!

mauidj's picture

I couldn’t care less about the music or the format but your verbal diarrhea is really hardly to read. Then add in every single comment that you just have to respond to. You seem to just love stirring things up which is rather pathetic and somewhat hypocritical seeing as you really dislike anything negative thrown your way. Your dislike of any one over 50 is also pretty sad too. Less words dude!!! And how about just a smidge of humility. Just because you are young does not make you so special….or smart!

MalachiLui's picture

i get why you might not care for 'donda 2' or the stem player and i guess i see your perspective regarding this comments section but i'm genuinely curious as to what makes this "verbal diarrhea." not being defensive, rather just genuinely curious.

Anton D's picture

I don't click on things 'I couldn't care less about,' you should try it.

What a bunch of snowflakes. I am embarrassed by my fellow so called audiophiles.

MalachiLui's picture

it's amazing how so many people on here choose to waste their time complaining about things they say they couldn't care less about. like, don't they have better things to do?

Wymax's picture

Sounds a bit like Neil Young's failed Pono.

MalachiLui's picture

they're functionally very different. the only common thread is that both are digital audio products sponsored/presented/co-created by famous musicians. pono was an audiophile player for hi-res stereo files, while the stem player is not an audiophile player and it's meant to split music apart for active interaction rather than standard listening (you can do that too, it's just very inconvenient on the stem player). and unlike neil young and pono, i don't think kanye's gonna write an entire book about the stem player in 5 years.

anodyne jones's picture

To even consider a no talent absolute piece of Trump Trash a "recording artist" is a total embarrassment to this blog.

No it has nothing to do with "not getting it", generations, or a matter of taste, West is an utter toole who can't play a single instrument or sing.


MalachiLui's picture

here's your daily reminder that a sampler is indeed an instrument.

anodyne jones's picture

...and an IPhone is a Zeiss Contarex with Leica lenses.