To quote Dr. Romilly onboard the Endurance: “I’ve waited years.”
For the better part of a decade, it seemed we Kid Cudi diehards teased ourselves into waiting for an album doomed never to come: a proverbial Man on the Moon III, a resolution to the open wounds Cudi revealed to us in acts one and two. But as mayhem racked his psyche, his message muddied and his sound morphed further away from the Plain Pat-produced, melodic raps that first popularized him with perturbed stoner youth types. Many turned their backs along the way.
But if patience is a holy virtue, my soul is bound for heaven. And Kids See Ghosts has rewarded my righteous spirit.
Since its dawn in 2008, in the wake of the excellent A Kid Named Cudi mixtape, the Kanye-Cudi musical alliance has constantly orbited a nucleus of pain, grief, and anguish. At the time, West was living an unwakeable nightmare, devastated by the untimely death of his mother. Impressed by Cudi’s emotional range and amalgamation of singing with rap, he invited the Cleveland kid to Hawaii for private writing and recording sessions. Those sessions birthed more than just 808’s and Heartbreaks, an album as sorrowful and repentant as it is inventive—they famously remodeled the floor plan for the next decade of popular rap music, from Drake to Travis Scott to Tyler, the Creator, a trope that now goes without saying.
From 808’s on, the friendship rode a series of highs and lows that ran parallel to their psychological struggles—Kanye’s escalating bipolarism, egomania, psychosis, and manic episodes; Cudi’s spiral into drug abuse, relationship problems with the mother of his child, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
A decade later, despite recent philosophical differences, the artists once again slunk away to rendezvous in solitude, this time in Wyoming, in an attempt to rehash the elusive magic they first conjured during the early studio sessions in the Pacific islands.
Though their extreme personalities have clashed more than they’ve connected lately, Kids See Ghosts makes one thing certain: when Kanye and Cudi team up on wax, there is no hip-hop duo more adept at translating the experience of psychological despair into beautiful music.
Also Murakami’s cover belongs in the Guggenheim.
Feel the Love
Deep, futuristic spaceship synth lights blink on and off. Cudi bellows out, his rich voice echoing into darkness. His proclamation is one of love, sounding like triumph over struggles. Pusha T slides in smooth for the album’s first verse, his cutthroat flow building tension. He remains true to recent form, speaking creatively about transforming cocaine into crack rock, being a better rapper than you, and fraternizing with hospitable women. I’m on the edge of my chair waiting for the bass and drums to let loose. Cudi wails again, then thwack—it begins. Kanye rides in on a flurry of staggered drums, howling gun sounds with the intensity of ten thousand Desiigners—pandemonium. He shapeshifts into a loose cannon launching fireworks so hot and so many they’ll light the sky aflame. Blood spatters the melody. Suddenly the beat changes. A ray of sunlight pierces through the volcanic ash cloud, scattering it, casting down a profound brightness—like Cudi finding and feeling the love in a dark sea of troubles. He calls for the chorus to return, and it does, triumphantly, before collapsing back into cold industrial percussion. A haunting, emotional introduction to Kids See Ghosts.
An acoustic guitar riff twangs bouncily, underscored by delicate tambourine bells and a boot-stomping rhythm. This sounds like midwestern saloon music from 2045. Kanye loves when they talk down. He half-steps his way into a verse, but not the type of manic, scramble-brained monologue that plagued Ye. This Kanye is tighter, sharper. Cudi hums bob and weave in the background, repurposed as musical instruments to accentuate Kanye’s bars. It’s brief and surgical. A sultry flute wafts in, ominous but warm. Cudi’s turn on the mic is beautiful madness. “On a mission living, carry on,” he raps, a tale of perseverance. “I’m seeing through by the day.” Around the chorus, his vibrating hums bloom, filling out the minimal drum pattern, solidifying as the song’s concrete foundation. Cudi looks at his scars, then to the skies, hoping to rise above the sadness and self-destruction of his past. Fire surges with confident energy, but its flare is contained in a compact two-minute chassis. Morose guitar strings plink for 30 seconds after it ends.
The sample warbles under a sepia filter. Letting the original song run first is Kanye’s way of gloating, making sure we know exactly how masterfully he chopped up this ‘30s Christmas tune. It reverses and we plunge into technicolor, martial drums and dirty 808s. Kanye dials in on a three-note melody of “oh, oh, oh,” as the beat’s ribs, layering it into an eerie choir. With Lacoste punchlines and a flow reminiscent of 2004’s “Get Em High,” this sounds like the thought-to-be-extinct Kanye of old. His sexual lines remain unsavory, but contain just enough humorous juxtaposition to garner an immature chuckle, “She said I’m in the wrong hole, I said I’m lost.” A villainous laugh bubbles over. The bass throbs. Enter Cudi. His rhymes are tightly wound—no singing here. In fact, he barely alters his pitch the entire verse. He’s technical, precise with every syllable. There’s been a noticeable emphasis on spirituality in Cudi’s writing so far—faith in something larger has helped him find light in dark times. Then again, he raps, “I really hope the Lord won’t hurt me, we all live in sin.” Cudi’s still a touch conflicted, afraid even, wondering if he exists in constant judgment. Some questions just can’t be answered in a lifetime.
Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2)
Kanye toys with an MPC, haphazardly stabbing grunge-y guitar noises into the chest of a Marcus Garvey spoken-word sample: “When man becomes possessor of the knowledge of himself, he becomes the master of his environment,” Garvey says. Kanye suggests he’s attained such self-mastery by booming, “I don’t feel pain anymore … I feel freeee.” It’s aggressive, unsettling even, like his new freedom is something to be afraid of, a tiger loose from its cage. Deep, fluttering guitar evokes “Erase Me.” Ty Dolla $ign emerges from the riffs, lifting the verse to a holy echelon before taking total command of the gospel refrain. It rings out beautifully before the heavy guitar drops once more. The callbacks to Ye’s “Ghost Town,” present in the song’s title and hook, bring Kanye’s recent bouts of mania into question. Is he really free, or is this just another psychosis-fueled high preceding an equally awe-inspiring crash and burn?
In October 2016, Kid Cudi checked himself into rehab seeking help for depression and suicidal urges. He posted an open letter to family, friends, and fans on social media, explaining his “damaged” frame of mind and his decision to find treatment. In the final paragraph of that letter, Cudi writes, “I’ll be back, stronger, better. Reborn.”
Nostalgic, melancholy piano keys set the clock back to 2010, to a sound the world has dearly missed since Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager. Cudi emerges like a phoenix from the ashes of his past. Dot Da Genius’s production is soft and balmy, but the bass reverberates through planets and moons. “Ain’t no stress on me, lord.” Cudi sounds free. Not the wild-eyed, lead-footed brand of free Kanye claims to be on “Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2),” but a true, bird in the wind type of free. Kanye steps in for a simple but strikingly solemn verse about the shame and exhaustion that accompany his perceived “insanity.” Oh the chorus, Cudi sounds like the last cosmic warrior, lonely in his spaceship, reassuring himself as he hurdles through an infinite universe of sunlight and stardust. “Keep movin’ forward,” is his mantra, the thing keeping him afloat over deep, dark waters. Just keep swimming. Angels weep for Scott Mescudi. “Reborn” is the emotional climax of the album and a Kid Cudi magnum opus. It is his homecoming, the closing of the loop, the light at the end of the tunnel to the center of the mind.
Kids See Ghosts
Rainforest rap. The bass pulsates like a racing heartbeat. Mechanical accessories tick and hiss. The artist formerly known as Mos Def nonchalantly repeats the title maxim, summoning spirits from speakers. Otherworldly electric synths trill in the background. Cudi sounds half-asleep murmuring about his rap spawn and his search for self in the midst of an identity crisis. He takes over the chorus before giving way to Kanye, who lowers his shoulder and trucks his way through 23 bars. Each of his verses is more exciting than the last. He presents himself as a conflicted Christian, a confident protagonist with good intentions who lived long enough in the spotlight for his unabashed dogmatism to turn the masses against him. The hero become the villain—a villain with drip though, draped in Prada and headquartered in a Herzog & de Meuron building by the Rhine River. Mos Def returns to make a vague point about balance: “civilization without society … stability without stasis.”
This album is a master class in guitar samples (take vigorous notes please, Rocky). Gritty strumming courtesy of Kurt Cobain forms the beat’s outline. Cudi tap-dances between deep acoustic brushstrokes before harmonizing with Mr. Hudson. “In time I find I’m stronger than I ever was.” Cudi’s newfound hope makes for tremendously empowering hooks. Kanye’s last verse of the project is delivered with vigor and desperation, telling a warning tale of cyclical violence, capped by an Alice Johnson bar reaching to encourage young people to break that cycle. Cudi rides the chorus out for the final minute, extending the moment in celebration. Lord deliver this man from evil. The album ends with the words “Stay strong.”
Kanye West and Kid Cudi are haunted men.
They’re haunted by past personas that don’t exist at this moment in the space, time, and gravity of the rap universe. They’re haunted by the voices in their heads and the devils on their shoulders telling them to pop another pill. But Kids See Ghosts proves these bare-souled artists haven’t lost their gift for finding beauty beneath madness.
This album presents that Kanye and Cudi, after 10 years, have stopped wrestling with the pains that first guided them together, choosing instead to simply let them be. Cudi tried for years to anesthetize his with drugs. He smartly ditched the psychoactive crutches through stints at rehabilitation centers, but that left him without the Novocain he’d been using to numb his pain. Fans dedicated enough to follow his personal story from Satellite Flight through Passion, Pain, and Demon Slayin’ know—his depression and anxiety crippled him. Still, the transparency and sincerity of his music never faltered, even when it was unpopular and largely disjointed.
I’m not sure it’d be correct to discern that Cudi has found internal peace. A troubled mind is a troubled mind, and depression isn’t a readily curable disease. I do think, though, that he’s found ways in the last year or two to rise above his demons, or at least live happily in their company. “Peace is something that starts with me,” he croons. He understands that his pain is part of his identity, and he needn’t let it incapacitate him. This won’t be the terminus of Cudi’s problems, but now he knows he’s got the mental muscle to persist through what lies ahead.
Kids See Ghosts feels more majestic in the context of Cudi’s career than West’s. It marks the first time in the 2010s that Cudi has been (or has appeared) mentally healthy, and reaffirms his voice as one of the most poetic, introspective, and malleable in rap music, though he won’t always use it to the public’s liking.
West is more volatile, more erratic than Cudi. His tactful introspection and tight rhymes throughout Kids See Ghosts are surprising considering how sloppy and inflated Ye is, and this sliver of clarity doesn’t convince me that Mr. West is now a stable soul. Rather, Cudi played teacher, guiding Kanye and his jumpy creative nerves to a place that is controlled and purposeful. He has shown that he can wield the emotional peaks of his bipolar disorder as a creative superpower, but his shaky-ass year is a sign he hasn’t found a way to channel the lows into anything beyond fake woke twitter rants and vexed public outbursts.
Sonically, Kids See Ghosts doesn’t venture as far from contemporary rap norms as its contributors’ prior collaborations. Rather, it’s a concise return to the musical forms that define Ye and Cudder’s respective pasts. Vocally, Cudi is back on his poetic Man on the Moon sh**, but now he sings with the insight and succinctness of Demon Slayin’s neon peaks (and the heavenly hums!). Kanye’s beats are imaginative, colorful, and unmistakably his own. His lyric delivery is somehow tighter than it’s been since Yeezus.
Kanye and Cudi’s union on Kids See Ghosts is pure musical symbiosis, a reminder that to be pained is to be human and suffering can be beautiful.