What we learned from Kanye West’s Wyoming sessions (2024)

Diamond Cross Ranch in Wyoming was the scene where Kanye West and his collaborators could entomb themselves in seclusion. The century-old structure that sits in view of Grand Teton mountain would be turned into an artistic bomb shelter – protection from the outside world, a shield from the news cycle, sanctuary from the web of controversy spun by West’s confusing and offensive public statements that toxified the rapper’s brand. Five albums due for release in five weeks. A pop culture happening to define 2018.

That seemed to be the pitch anyway. We tend to lionise the wilderness as a silent sanctuary where, like Christ in the Judaean Desert, artists can open up their chest cavities and look deep within. Perhaps West figured that the limitless void outside the ranch’s windows could reflect the bottomless depths of his own creative spirit. Now that the cycle is over, the invited vloggers returned home, we are left with a cluster of new music – albums from West, a joint record with Kid Cudi, plus projects from Pusha T, Nas and Teyana Taylor – and the question of how the Wyoming sessions might be judged in the broader context of West’s legacy?

I would argue that the start of West’s peak predates his own solo career. It was 2001 when he contributed four beats to Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, helping to forge one of the greatest commercial rap albums ever made. This creative apex endured through to 2016 with the release of West’s seventh album, The Life of Pablo, a stitched-together scrapbook of raw sonic invention. Career peaks aren’t supposed to last a decade and a half but West forged an unmatched catalogue by following his own proclivities in a manner we tend to dub “genius”.

But the sum of this recent output has been spotty: moments of greatness lined up next to moments of disorder; interesting experimentation undercut by poor decision making. West’s solo album ye was dragged down by flat writing that nodded to his recent life and actions in no more than arbitrary ways, and too many beats that sounded like inferior rehashes of old arrangements (Yikes felt like a less barbed version of Facts, and No Mistakes failed to recapture the grandiosity of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). Plus, the rapper sounded oddly reserved on the mic. Where was the spitter who locked horns with Kendrick Lamar on No More Parties in LA just a couple of years ago? West ostensibly wanted a feeling of brevity to each Wyoming record – all of which feature just seven tracks, bar Taylor’s eight-song KTSE – but ye is still a cautionary tale of what can happen when you package an unchecked swell of creativity.

West’s artistry, though, has always been bolstered by an enviable sixth sense for choosing who he needs by his side. The West/Kid Cudi team-up Kids See Ghosts is a mighty swarm of psych-tinted electronics and trenchant reflection on redemption and mental health. Ye and Kids See Ghosts were released just a week apart, reflecting the volatile creative energy coming out of Wyoming.

West was at his best as the man behind the music. Pusha T’s excellent Daytona proved that West can still serve as a fantastic working producer, handing over seven lean, diamond-cut beats for King Push’s punchy co*ke rap. While Nas’s Nasir was an average record, hindered by a lack of focus from the MC, West was on form. Meanwhile, Teyana Taylor’s dapper R&B reminded me of West’s days arranging for singers like Alicia Keys. The beatmaker who forged All Falls Down can be heard on cuts like Bonjour (from Nasir) and Gonna Love Me (from KTSE). Turns out, the much mourned chop-up-the-soul West, long presumed AWOL, still exists.

Hearing the vitality of West’s work with other artists reminded me of his one-time collaborator Paul McCartney, another superstar who never let the shine on his name dull his passion for studio session work. West was once the kid who messed with beats but couldn’t get anyone in the industry to listen to his rhymes. If Wyoming has taught us one thing, it’s that his Herculean celebrity has not drained his love for maximising the gifts of other artists: West as a producer still has a lot to offer.

And when the elements align just right, West is still the rap creative testing the genre’s outer borders. Take Freeee (Ghost Town, Pt. 2), from Kids See Ghosts, where rap and psych-rock bump hips on as pleasingly dissonant a song as West has released post-Yeezus. Cops Shot the Kid, a meditation on police brutality from Nasir, is constructed out of a jittery vocal sample lifted from Slick Rick’s old school classic Children’s Story, with a single line – “The cops shot the kid” – looped repeatedly. If West’s ear for a sample had been just a degree or two out, such a jittery loop would have been unlistenable, but the risk pays off.

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If West’s Wyoming odyssey showed that his instincts are indeed fallible, maybe it’s because he was determined to follow them into the abyss, even if they led him off a cliff. Records were cut off at the knee, sent out into the world before the paint had dried. While not conducive to the creation of art that will outlive the news cycle, the Wyoming sessions are still an admirable achievement. Enough good music was produced to suggest that a focused West will make future classics. Yet as he frees himself of the cold wilderness, there’s the sense that his unparalleled creative peak has finally broken.

What we learned from Kanye West’s Wyoming sessions (2024)
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