"It's great to be out here," Chris Rock said on Thursday night at the Diamond Cross Ranch near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. "It's beautiful – I was walking around, and I saw a moose. I went up and touched the moose, and the moose said to me, 'Hey, there's a lot of niggas here!'"
This wasn't a regularly scheduled gig for Rock: He was telling a few impromptu jokes as a favor to Kanye West, who convened a listening party last night for his new Ye album in Jackson Hole. This sparsely populated, relentlessly scenic part of Wyoming has served frequently as West's creative sanctuary since the release of The Life of Pablo in 2016.
To celebrate the arrival of Pablo two years ago, West filled the stands at New York's Madison Square Garden. He took a very different approach for Ye: lavish, but with laser focus. The star flew hundreds of media members, including a large number of radio programmers, out to a remote location where he plied them with booze and barbecue. The event had the air of an old-school record-biz charm offensive, and may also have been intended to partially mitigate some of the negative attention West has earned recently for comments about President Trump and slavery.
The cost of the party must have been exorbitant. Guests like DJ Giovanny, who helms radio stations in Columbus and Indianapolis, were flown to New York on Wednesday night before heading out to Jackson Hole the following day. At JFK Airport on Thursday morning, there were roughly 20 more people than the 68-seater private jet could accommodate, so Team West scrambled a Gulfstream to handle the overload.
That 68-seater from JFK to Jackson Hole was full of radio heavy-hitters, including a pair of English DJs: Tim Westwood, who had a videographer film him as he showed off his seat recliner, and Charlie Sloth, whom U.S. listeners might know for his role in launching Big Shaq's viral hit "Man's Not Hot." Also in attendance was Ron Mills, program director for SiriusXM's stations Hip-Hop Nation and Shade 45. A self-professed Lord of the Rings fan, Mills compared the craggy Wyoming landscape to Mordor and jokingly advised several passengers to watch out for Orcs.
The presence of these DJs suggested some of West's current promotional strategy. During a lengthy interview with Charlamagne tha God in May, the rapper was evidently frustrated by his lack of success on the airwaves. His recent controversies are unlikely to make him new fans in the programming community. "My colleagues were really hurt by what he said," explained DJ Giovanny, who works for Radio One, a minority-owned company that's currently responsible for close to 60 broadcast stations in 15 urban markets in the United States. "He really offended a lot of people," DJ Giovanny added. "But I don't think he's unable to fix it."
At the Diamond Cross Ranch, a roughly 40-minute bus ride away from Jackson Hole, West started trying to repair those relationships. He seemed intent on showing his accessibility, working the crowd, taking selfies, and making sure to speak with Radio One's VP of programming, Colby "Colb" Tyner.
West's label-mates and collaborators were also on hand. Teyana Taylor, who reportedly has a new album on the way, strolled the floor; Kid Cudi exchanged hugs with the rising R&B singer Bridget Kelly; and 2 Chainz and Kim Kardashian held court at a wooden picnic table, consenting to be gawked at, hugged and photographed. Nas, clad head to toe in orange, enjoyed some barbecued meats, while Ty Dolla $ign, who provides scene-stealing backing vocals during several moments on Ye, chatted with Tim Westwood. The New York rapper Fabolous wandered the premises, as did G.O.O.D. Music's Kacy Hill and Desiigner.
There were also a surprising number of apparent locals at the party, creating a rare West-world event in which cowboy hats were as common as Yeezys. The evening's aesthetic was resolutely Wyoming – steep snowcapped mountains in the distance, camp fires, log benches and horses on site, a brief wood-chopping display (no joke), a barn with a packed-dirt floor covered in sawdust. Two police officers providing security explained that parties at the ranch aren't unusual, since "lots of celebrities have homes in Jackson Hole." "But this is at a little bit of a different level," they admitted.
Around 10 p.m., West instructed the crowd to gather around a lively bonfire that spat smoke and sparks. Towers of speakers were arranged in a circle with the fire at the center. "Remember this: Hip-hop music is the first art form created by free black men," Rock said by way of introduction. "And no black man has taken more advantage of his freedom than Kanye West."
As Ye played at sternum-rattling volume, West and many of his associates rapped along at the outer edge of the crowd. When the album moved toward its final third, West again chose to emphasize his accessibility, battling through a wall of fans and phones until he was next to the bonfire, where he continued to dance, rap and shake hands.
Ye is so short that it's almost jarring: The audience was just settling in to the listening experience when the album came to a close. The youngest members of the crowd appeared most excited by the second half of the album's first song, which is hard-nosed, bruising and full of unrestrained energy. DJ Giovanny thought an alluringly risqué track that opens with dueling vocal features from Ty Dolla $ign and Jeremih would be a strong choice for Ye's first single.
When the album ended after seven songs, West received a vote of confidence from the crowd. "Run that back!" someone yelled. And moments later, Ye was playing again.