Kanye West is a master of the redemptive arc. As music industry titans filed into Diamond Cross Ranch on a crisp Thursday evening, the façade wasn't hard to peel back. The same critics who claimed West was cancelled after calling slavery "a choice" were now in a bacchanalian haze watching caramel and chocolate horses roam in green tranquility.
For one fleeting night, West did what he does best. He sampled. Only this time the records he smashed together were in service of a social experiment. Where else could your average Wyoming citizen see Scott Disick yell to Kanye, "What's going on with you?" Yeezy's listening party did indeed turn "TMZ to Smack DVD." The celebrity sightings were like a real-life version of Mad Libs unfolding — Jonah Hill chopped it up with Kid Cudi; Kim Kardashian shot the shit with 2 Chainz.
Bizarre, oddly brilliant, and in slightly bad taste, the event was a microcosm for Ye the album. The question that hung over the proceedings like a plague was simple: Was Wyoming our generation's Jonestown, even if the Kool-Aid was seven soulful beats from the most influential artist of the last decade?
It wasn't, but thankfully Chris Rock understood the jig. The legendary comedian joked that the crackling bonfire on a normal day would be the site of a Ku Klux Klan cross-burning. The juxtaposition between laughing media personalities and awkward chuckles from Wyoming residents was palpable.
"No black man has taken more advantage of his freedom than Kanye West," Rock proclaimed through a feedback-drenched microphone. He wasn't wrong. A collection of 150 people ascended the mountaintop to see if West's first profession — the music — could win back that "freedom" or present his version of it.
On "Yikes," Kanye raps, "That's my bipolar shit, n---a what? / That's my superpower, n---a ain't no disability." Before the album played, the Chicago artist walked the ranch, and seeing him field photo requests from fans and make small talk with various celebrities was akin to Superman facing his Kryptonite. West was cordial, but beneath each forced smile was the pain of an artist in the midst of a rebuild. The circus surrounding a man still battling mental illness made the lyrics even more visceral.
Kanye isn't all right, but in person it is clear to see he is fighting to be. On "I Thought About Killing You," West is talking about killing a mysterious person. As I flashed back to earlier that evening, it was clear that he might be talking about himself and the man who almost crumbled an empire with every misguided tweet. With his wife, Kim, by his side, Kanye huddled everyone around the fire to hear his stories of drug addiction, marital woes, and the sonic process of killing one's demons.
Yeezy has wrought significant damage on the black community. No amount of free drinks, dry brisket, and free merch can change that. Every day millions of African-Americans are fighting for their lives and sadly can't retreat to the snowy mountains of Wyoming to heal the pain of a country that won't let them kneel, raise their hands, or speak out against the oppression creeping into their lives.
However, for a couple of hours, Kanye's social experiment worked. At one point, I stood next to a man who said he taught Kanye kickboxing, and his wife. With a mouthful of ribs, we spoke like we had been friends forever. He remarked how it was amazing that West supposedly invited all of the members of the resort where he finished Ye to the festivities. We discussed his move from Florida to Wyoming and the adjustment it took. Who knows if any of this was true, but the moment wasn't lost on me.
In Wyoming, the barrier between celebrity and fan dissolved. Before the album played, I walked up to an unassuming man in a grey hoodie. It was Kid Cudi. As my voice trembled, I told the Man on the Moon how his music got me through the pain of death. Scott warmly said, "No, that was always you." It wasn't fair to lay that at my idol's feet, but his kind words perfectly illustrated that we're not that different from Kanye. We're all looking for love, whether we are multi-platinum-selling artists or fans disguised as reporters and social critics.
Maybe West wasn't reborn in the fire Thursday night, but he didn't need to be. There was never an "old Kanye." What Cudi said to me could apply just as easily to West: "That was always you."