Gone West: Were the Wyoming Sessions a failure?

Photo courtesy of Twitter, 2018. The original post has been deleted.

Photo courtesy of Twitter, 2018. The original post has been deleted.

Kanye West is good at getting people talking. Earlier this year, the rapper, producer, and professional agitator announced not one but five new albums. These ‘Wyoming Sessions’ consisted of albums by G.O.O.D Music luminaries Pusha T and Teyana Taylor, top five contender Nas, a collaborative project between West and Kid Cudi and, of course, a solo album by Mr West himself. Most curious of all was the suggestion that these albums would not really be albums. Each album, Kanye announced, would be just seven tracks in length.

However, what was an interesting concept was quickly overshadowed by things that had nothing to do with music. As always these days, what Kanye West says tends to be a bigger story than what Kanye West does, and his support for Donald Trump and the now infamous remarks about slavery being a choice meant that these bold experiments in form and content were somewhat lost beneath the ego of a man who must always be the centre of attention, even if it’s to get pelted with rotten fruit.

So far so what. Enough time and energy have already been spent on this misinformed idiocy, and regardless of how many people try to tell him otherwise, the man already got he wanted – people talking. What he didn’t get however, was people talking about the albums. Kanye West’s antics, coupled with a messy rollout, ultimately cost the project and the sales prospects of one of its stars. Not that it matters of course, for as we enter a new season, the still unapologetic producer has found new ways to piss people off, such as working with actual paedophile Tekashi 6ix9ine.  

Still, let’s forget about Kanye West the person for a moment and concentrate instead on Kanye West as he would like to be known – an auteur. Some might say the Wyoming Sessions were doomed from the start by an erratic and unreliable producer more interested in clicks than credibility. But I think this is a far-too simplistic reading of what is, on balance, a worthwhile yet flawed attempt to challenge the tastes and listening habits of a generation more accustomed to Spotify streams than CD purchases. There’s also some genuinely great song-writing and composition that deserves recognition, too.  

Pusha T. Photo courtesy Bennett Raglin/BET/Getty.

Pusha T. Photo courtesy Bennett Raglin/BET/Getty.

Expectations were high, and initially, they were met. After the confusing and bloated mess that was the Life of Pablo, the promise of stripped-down, no-filler albums was enticing, particularly given the possibility that Kanye might actually be going back to his roots as a producer, putting aside his unwieldy visions to help other artists with theirs.

In this respect, Pusha T’s Daytona was the perfect introduction to the new project. A critical and commercial success, the album matched Pusha’s typically hard-nosed coke rap with a colourful and eclectic array of beats and served as a reminder (if anyone needed one) of Kanye’s credentials as one of hip-hop’s greatest producers. It also re-ignited a long-running beef with Drake, which was quickly silenced by one of the most impeccable smackdowns of recent history, The Story of Adidon, a track which, while it did not hurt his sales, would nonetheless expose Drake, and force the rapper to reveal that he was, in fact, to quote Pusha, hiding a child.  

Beyond the drama, the album was highly re-playable, and demonstrated that Kanye might be onto something with the shorter format. If streaming has made music more disposable, shorter albums could have more value to a listening public grown used to skipping through tracks to get to one song. The idea was also refreshing given the recent vogue for long-albums, arguably motivated by a cynical gaming of streams to guarantee platinum or gold certification.

Sadly, it was not to be. Taken together, the albums that followed reflected much of Kanye West’s current output – occasionally brilliant, often frustrating, but above all, inconsistent. The much-anticipated solo effort, Ye, was a mess of corny bars, half-baked concepts, and often barely coherent rambling that showed an artist struggling to articulate himself, perhaps due to his own issues, or perhaps because he just doesn’t have anything worthwhile to say anymore. This lack of focus and poorly conceived content made the shorter format utterly superfluous. After all, why bother limiting an album to seven tracks if those seven tracks sound unfinished?

Listening party in Wyoming for the album Ye (2018). Photo courtesy of WAV.

Listening party in Wyoming for the album Ye (2018). Photo courtesy of WAV.

Compare all that with the exceptional Kids See Ghosts, the collaborative effort between Kanye and Kid Cudi. The album perfectly paired the two artists, and somehow managed to successfully blend hip-hop, rock, psychedelia, and a Louis Prima sample in a collage of sounds that should not work but totally does – a truly unique project that was inventive, exciting, and concise. One of the strongest albums in the series, Kids See Ghosts may have been enough to justify the whole project, but then came what was probably the biggest (and surprising) let-down, the Nas album.

Despite promises to the contrary, the Nas album is definitely not done. Or if it is, Nasir certainly isn’t it. A long-running criticism of Nas’s post-2000s output has been his choice of beats, and that all he really needed to produce another classic comparable to Illmatic would be working with a superstar producer who could provide sounds that would fit his peerless ability at lyricism and storytelling.

How odd then, that on a collaboration between Nas and Kanye, Nas would be the one not to show up. There are definitely some misses production-wise – the brain-numbing Cops Shot the Kid or the needlessly long Everything – but overall this album found a master craftsman phoning it in with some of the most lacklustre and questionable bars of his career.

From the conspiracy theorising of Not For Radio, where Nas asserts (among other things) that J. Edgar Hoover was black, wondering whether girls masturbate before going on dates, to questioning the side effects of vaccinations, the lyrical content of the album was bizarre and below par, particularly for an elder statesman of rap. Add to that a botched release, helped in no small part by accusations of plagiarism, and what should have been a triumphant return became a missed opportunity.  

Teyana Taylor (2016). Photo courtesy of Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP.

Teyana Taylor (2016). Photo courtesy of Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP.

By this point, the Wyoming Sessions had been defined by ups and downs – greatness one moment, mehness the next – as well as increasingly poor management on behalf of its curator and mastermind, Kanye West.

The final work in the quintet, Teyana Taylor’s long-teased G.O.O.D. Music solo outing Keep That Same Energy (K.T.S.E.), was both well-produced and well-performed, but ultimately let down by yet another haphazard release. As mentioned above, this cost Teyana a full day and a half of streams and sales – crucial to a performer still trying to find a footing in the industry as a solo artist.

K.T.S.E. also showed Kanye’s lack of commitment to his own vision. Unlike the other albums, K.T.S.E. broke the seven-track formula with the addition of vogue-house Work This Pussy, which, while admittedly brilliant, was a jarring contrast to the laid-back R’n’B of the rest of the album.

Perhaps that’s the point. The Wyoming Sessions were never supposed to be a cohesive project led by one singular and disciplined visionary, but rather a collection of odd sketches, collaborations, and ideas. Hits and misses, so to speak. But it does appear a strange occurrence in the career of a producer who, up until the past few years, has been known for high-concept work that not only sounded good, but confidently delivered on the ambitions of its creator.

So, is it right to call the Wyoming Sessions a failure? Not entirely, but I suppose that depends on what the aim of the Sessions was. Despite presenting a compelling argument for a shorter format, the trend of stacked albums does not seem to be stopping anytime soon. Time will tell whether or not Kanye’s decision to release albums as short as these had any impact, but so far it’s difficult to see why any other mainstream artist would take the risk, particularly when there is money to be made from lengthy track lists.

In terms of content, the Sessions boasted some of this year’s best releases. Daytona and Kids See Ghosts can both be ranked as highlights in the catalogues of Pusha T and Kid Cudi, and while not as strong as either of these albums, K.T.S.E. was still a fine entry for Teyana Taylor. These albums demonstrated that, with discipline and focus, Kanye can still do wonders for other artists, and remains one of the most versatile and imaginative producers working right now.

Other work however, showed that his seven-track format was a superfluity or worse still, a gimmick. Ye sounded anything but complete, while Nasir was a mismatch, arguably hampered by a lack of effort on Nas’s part, but perhaps also a producer unable to inspire a good performance from his star collaborator.

Life goes on. New music keeps being churned out by an industry desperate to sate the demand of people used to having infinity at their disposal. Next year one wonders if anyone will remember Kanye’s experiment, for by then who knows what will be taking up the news cycle. Still, while his public persona continues to shock and offend, the Wyoming Sessions prove Kanye is an artist willing to take risks, willing to experiment, willing to invent. Kanye will always be good at getting people talking. Let’s hope next time it’s just for the music.