Why Kanye Went Way Out West

Posted June 1, 2018 8:08 p.m. EDT

MORAN, Wyo. — At around 10 p.m. Thursday at the Diamond Cross Ranch here, Chris Rock stepped up on a small platform, looked out over a few hundred people huddled around a wildly flickering bonfire, and leaned in to his convocation.

“I touched a moose!” he exclaimed, “and the moose said to me, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of ...'” — well, let’s just say people who don’t ordinarily gather on a ranch in Wyoming. He nodded toward the fire. “Tomorrow night that will be a cross,” he deadpanned.

Hip-hop, he said, is “the first art form created by free black men” (though jazz would probably quibble with that characterization). He continued, “No black man has taken more advantage of his freedom than Kanye West.”

On and off for the past several months, West has been working on new music in Wyoming — much like the Hawaii sessions that gave birth to “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” — flying in collaborators and basking in nature’s splendor. West has promised several albums from this work: Pusha-T’s “Daytona,” which was released last week; new projects from Nas and Teyana Taylor; and two albums from West, one with Kid Cudi and one solo.

His own album, titled “Ye,” West’s eighth, was unveiled here Thursday, almost immediately after its completion. The setup was sparse and dramatic: a wide-open field, huge stacks of speakers arranged in a circle around the bonfire and cameras filming every moment for a livestream. Off in the distance, several horses displayed no apparent interest in the proceedings.

A vast majority of the audience was flown in for the occasion: West’s wife, Kim Kardashian West; representatives of West’s label, Def Jam; radio DJs and programmers; journalists; a handful of other artists (Pusha-T, Lil Yachty, Fabolous); and a smattering of celebrities (Rock, Jonah Hill, Luka Sabbat, Scott Disick). British hip-hop radio stalwart Tim Westwood was running around interviewing people. 2 Chainz walked his French bulldog, Trappy, around on a leash. Conservative pundit Candace Owens, a West favorite, made the rounds.

Owens’ presence was notable as a reminder of the unusual context in which “Ye” arrives. Since April, West has been on a quixotic path — letting go of his managers (though one of them, Scooter Braun, was in Wyoming), flaunting his Make America Great Again cap, praising President Donald Trump; going on “TMZ” and revealing he had liposuction and contending slavery was a choice; and more.

And over the past few days, he’s become embroiled in a feud with Drake via a proxy, Pusha-T, with Drake pushing back against allegations he’s worked with ghostwriters by alleging that he has done the same for West.

It has been, in short, a rowdy, disruptive and in some ways damaging stretch, and at least some of the purpose of “Ye” is a course correction to what he describes, on the new song “No Mistakes,” as “a shaky-ass year.” In several places on this album, he touches on his mental health. On “Yikes,” he mentions bipolar disorder. “That’s my superpower,” he raps. “Ain’t no disability.” (The album’s cover, available on streaming services Friday morning, features the words “I hate being Bi-Polar its awesome.”) But more important, he maps out a path for forgiveness, private and maybe public, especially on “Wouldn’t Leave,” which is about profoundly disappointing your partner.

After the listening session ended, many of the guests piled into buses and ended up at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, a supersized, taxidermy-filled honky-tonk in downtown Jackson, 45 minutes to the southwest.

A bluegrass band was playing for a few dedicated dancers, and after a little scene-sniffing — with both locals and visitors looking on warily — dozens of West’s friends burst onto the dance floor. Lil Yachty, his red braids flying, was doing BlocBoy JB’s signature kick dance, and Teyana Taylor, wearing a Goyard body satchel, was hitting a sturdy milly rock. Desiigner ran onto the floor to do-si-do with some regulars. On the other side of the room, Ty Dolla Sign was shooting pool.

It was both surreal and also unremarkable, this intermingling of crowds; the we-can-all-get-along video for Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here” came to mind. If there was any tension, it was minor — some stern- looking police officers patrolling the room. At one point, the band was covering Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” and it sounded like the singer might have replaced “racket boys” with “MAGA boys.”

A little while later, West showed up. While a crowd formed around him, it wasn’t unmanageable. He posed for pictures with locals, sat and talked to Big Sean for a bit, and generally played the part of guy in a bar, just like everyone around him. And on this night, in this room, America looked like it might be something great after all.