Kanye West & Kid Cudi – Kids See Ghosts
Genre: Rap, Alternative, R&B
Life’s been crazy for Kanye West and Kid Cudi. Kanye, of course, has had one of the most bizarre and conflicting years of his bizarre and conflicting career, turning his fans on their heads with daring beliefs and a divisive solo album titled ye that happens to be his worst yet. Not since 2009, the year leading up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his undisputed masterpiece, has he generated such controversy and division. Kid Cudi, on the other hand, has had a rocky path in general. Ever since the releases of his 2009 cult classic Man on the Moon: The End of Day and its 2010 sequel, his output has been quite hit-or-miss, culminating in 2015’s Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven, an atrocious and overlong attempt at Nirvana-esque grunge rock, and then following it up in 2016 with Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’, undeniably his best work since Man on the Moon. At first thought, the pairing of the two might seem a bit odd, but they do share quite a bit in common. Of course there’s the fact they’ve been collaborators since the start, with Cudi lending a hand to the making of Kanye’s influential 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak, but there’s something bigger that they share and that helps make their long-awaited collaboration album Kids See Ghosts another masterpiece: mental health issues.
Cudi caused quite a stir last year with his confession of depression and suicidal thoughts, and eventual submission into rehab. He eventually reached a stage of rehabilitation, but this period of time plays a big role in his contributions to Kids See Ghosts. The most prominent showcase of this is on highlight “Reborn”, which conjures up vibes reminiscent of the carefree, head-in-the-clouds mind explorations of Man on the Moon. “At times, wonder my purpose/Easy then to feel worthless/But peace is something that starts with me”, Cudi sings. It’s liberating to hear a man in such a difficult position just a year ago sound so confident and so rejuvenated. “Ain’t no stress on me, Lord/I’m moving forward/Keep moving forward”, he encourages. The track also serves as a showcase of Kanye’s bipolar disorder, addressed memorably on his ye cover. “What a awesome thing, engulfed in shame/I want all the rain, I want all the pain”, he raps. With both artists being the immense innovators and influencers they are, it’s important to hear icons of their status admitting to their faults, showcasing that things like these are human, and that the best thing to do is move forward.
If “Reborn” found the pair coming to terms with their demons in a more resonating way, “Freeee (Ghost Town, Pt. 2)”, the sequel to ye highlight “Ghost Town”, is them throwing the demons out of the window, fully liberated and free of struggle. “I don’t feel pain anymore/Guess what, baby? I feel free”, Kanye yells over a psych-rock freakout of distorted guitars and crashing drums reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix at his most drugged-out, with intersecting choir-like vocals from Ty Dolla $ign also adding an air of brevity to the raging chaos of the track. Both tracks coming next to each other, they add further emphasis to the influence the two have had in the past via their openness to talk about mental illness and other emotions, Cudi much more so than Kanye. Cudi serves as a major innovator and idol of today’s hip-hop scene not only because of his melodic, auto-tuned R&B fusions, but because of this openness. In a Beats 1 interview, Travis Scott discussed how he “created a world for kids like [him], who wasn’t just like, the ultimate drug dealer…that kind of artist comes once every decade”, and it rings true; few artists in recent memory have had the power to resonate with listeners like Cudi, which is why it feels so great to hear him in perhaps the best state he’s ever been in after just checking into rehab last year for depression.
Kids See Ghosts is also notable for being one of the few collaboration albums out there where both artists get equal shine time, rather than the all-too-common occurrence of one artist outshining the other. While Cudi does seem to get more vocal time than Kanye here, Kanye still shines when he takes the spotlight, delivering some of his most inspired verses and vocal performances in a long while, with his verses on the title track and on “Cudi Montage” standing out in particular. His verse on the former is his best straight “bars” verse since “No More Parties in L.A.”, channeling the charismatic, humor-laced lines that established him as a star on The College Dropout in 2004, all delivered with an audible wink and a smile. However, the latter is among his best work as a conscious rapper, delivering an anecdote on gun violence and its affect on respective environments, with an assured air of knowledge not heard since “Gorgeous” in 2010. Kanye also delivers yet another meme-worthy moment on “Feel the Love”, spraying off arrays of overexaggerated gunshot onomatopoeias, feeling in kin with the scatological cacophony on novelty classic-to-be “Lift Yourself”. Whether channeling the “old Kanye”, raising awareness on conscious verses, or just letting out his raw thoughts, Kanye is in top lyrical form here.
But Kanye also notably shines on Kids See Ghosts for another major reason; the production. Kanye recently made a grand return to the playing field that brought him recognition in the first place on Pusha-T’s Daytona, released earlier this year (Pusha also turns in a typically great guest verse here on “Feel the Love”). On Daytona, he returned to his longtime skill for chopping up samples, utilizing them in a fresh, new way, finding even newer ways to twist them and make them sound entirely different from their original form, mixing a smooth soul style with the hard-nosed industrial sound that he’s loved so much ever since Yeezus in 2013. However, on Kids See Ghosts, samples are mostly absent from the frame, aside from a brilliant flip of a 1936 Christmas classic on “4th Dimension”, and a use of an unreleased Kurt Cobain demo on the gorgeous “Cudi Montage”. Rather, Kanye opts for something yet again entirely new, with a psychedelic background of floating synths and rock guitars. The production is brilliantly atmospheric, turning a regular song into a mood in itself. Take the title track for example. The production is mysterious and haunting, sounding like something straight out of a Nintendo 64 game. Kanye puts the main drum pattern through a filter that gives it the feel of water dripping from a hollow cave, with the synth line that comes in during the Mos Def-sung chorus adding an extra air of atmosphere to it. It’s easily one of the best beats Kanye has ever produced, and also brilliantly reflects the cover art, done by Takashi Murakami, who also designed Kanye’s iconic Graduation cover.
Kids See Ghosts’ greatest strength is the way both artists are able to create spaces for one another and bring out the best of each other that they can. It’s a beautiful portrayal of brotherly love, one that establishes them as not just close collaborators but as a whole. Kanye’s psychedelic production challenges Cudi to bring his most inspired lyrics and vocal performances since Man on the Moon, and creates a space for Cudi to openly vent about his darkest thoughts and the ultimate light at the end of these thoughts. This also allows Kanye to open up about his mental health in a much more substantial way than he did on ye, portraying the full side of his bipolar disorder that he started on ye but failed to fully represent. The centerpiece of the album is “Reborn”, where both artists play off each other, with Kanye first portraying the dark side of his disorder, while Cudi outlines the path to redemption, ultimately coming across as one personality, one story. But the album’s finest moment is “Cudi Montage”. Over utterly masterful production, Kanye and Cudi bring it all to a full circle, addressing the light at the end of all the darkest corners of the mind. “Lord, shine your light on me/Save me, please”, Kanye repeats at the end of the track over a flurry of gorgeous synths and background vocals. It’s a final statement of salvation and redemption, something that the whole album spent leading up to. Kids See Ghosts is a masterpiece of emotion, of hope, of finding a light during the darkest times. The album serves as a milestone of achievement, for few albums are able to convey and resonate so much over such a short runtime. Kids See Ghosts is the light at the end of the tunnel, the moon in the night sky, a reminder that we are not alone in what we experience. Keep moving forward, indeed.
Photo courtesy of Def Jam Recordings