Let’s just skip straight to the part on Kids See Ghosts, the Kanye West–Kid Cudi collaboration album that came out on Friday, where Kanye and his trusty sidekick Mike Dean manage to squeeze a feature out of Louis Prima. It’s truly remarkable, considering the New Orleans jazz and swing musician has been quite dead for 40 years.
Arguably, one of the most depressing aspects of Ye was how much it felt like a reversion to the mean—of course he spat back out headlines he glanced over on Twitter Moments; of course he bellyached about his daughter’s future uh, agency; of course he rapped awkwardly about sex. However, on “4th Dimension,” Kanye, well, still raps awkwardly about sex: “She said i’m in the wrong hole, I said ‘I’m lost’ (uh, uh),” he said, aloud. But I can’t say that I was expecting to hear Prima’s “What Will Santa Say” stretched and contorted into something so large, snarling, and downright diabolical. It’s as close to an ideal bed of sounds for Cudi to lay his phantasmic monotone over as it’s possible to get:
Kids See Ghost - “4th Dimension” clip from live event listening party. pic.twitter.com/U9AXwAX9OT— BURNING-HILLS (@BURNINGHILLS_) June 8, 2018
The bar has been significantly lowered, but by contrast at least, Kids See Ghosts was worth all the sweaty anticipation.
Ten years ago now, after the dissolution of his first engagement and the death of his mother, Kanye enlisted a mush-mouthed guy that had left Cleveland in 2005 with nothing but $500 and a demo tape to help mold the somber, glitchy frequency of 808s & Heartbreak. Buzz had been building behind Cudi’s breakout single “Day ‘N’ Nite,” which was recorded in 2007 and released a year later. It could be heard out of virtually every passing car and mens’ apparel storefront up until it was included on Cudi’s debut album Man on the Moon, and eventually, “Day ‘N’ Nite” went triple platinum. Cudi would go on to gain a cult fan base and directly influence your favorite moody, fashionable cloud rapper—think Travis Scott or A$AP Rocky—but five albums have come and gone since then, and for one reason or another, Kanye West and Kid Cudi had never collaborated on a full-length project. Until now. And when the WAV live stream finally flickered to life a full two-and-a-half hours late on Thursday evening, what became immediately clear—at least to me—was that Kanye knows just what a Cudi album is supposed to sound like.
OK maybe not immediately. On the opening salvo “Feel the Love,” which was misleadingly labeled “4th Dimension” on every streaming platform (originally, all of the metadata for Kids See Ghosts was jumbled; this can happen when you finish laying vocals for an album right before you upload it), Kanye barged in on the tail end of a slippery Pusha-T verse to make gun sounds for about 10 more seconds than he needed to. The good news about the rest of the album is that, after three listens, this seems like the most rash decision.
The next song, “Fire,” produced in part by André 3000, recalls the same one horse town on Mars vibes of earlier Cudi work; think saloon-door-swinging “revofev” from Man on the Moon II or the oft-forgotten internet loosie “She Came Along” with Sharam. The title track—which recalls Mos Def from the ether!—evokes images of flying cars and the Japanese retro futurism that both Kanye and Cudi love so dearly. The Ty Dolla $ign–assisted “Freee”— which New York Magazine writer Craig Jenkins noticed samples “Stark” by Mr. Chop— sounds like the psych-rock-leaning record that Cudi hasn’t been able to make in two very forgettable genre experiments’ worth of trying. “Cudi Montage” is even better—it borrows a jaundiced guitar riff from Kurt Cobain’s “Burn the Rain” and builds into a soaring chorus where Kanye, Cudi, and [checks notes] MR. HUDSON act as each others’ crutches. “Lord shine your light on me,” Kanye intones. “Stay strong!” Cudi and Hudson shout back.
Speaking about the spare menace of DAYTONA last month, Pusha-T said that Kanye likes to hear him one way—ONE way. In return, he was given his best solo release to date, and although it can occasionally feel as though Cudi just adorns Kids See Ghosts, he finally got to star in a space Western. For whatever else he’s done— which is a lot: scheduling “energy sessions” with Jared Kushner look-alikes, calling Donald Trump his “brother,” generally saying too much about how he feels when there are immutable facts to take into account— Kanye has done really well at crafting a specific sound for each of these seven-song projects, his own being the exception.
Kids See Ghosts is far more purposeful than Ye, and if you can’t tell from the sound, you might have been able to discern as much from the artwork. Where the cover for Ye was a picture taken en route to the Jackson Hole album listening party and edited with the Instagram Story paintbrush, Takashi Murakami has had Kids See Ghosts’ cover ready to go since late April. Plus, Kanye is flowing way better on this album. There’s even a verse on Kids that sounds as though it was scribed out beforehand, on actual paper.
The third-to-last song on Kids See Ghosts finds Kid Cudi and Kanye both leaving recent turmoil in the rearview—both have had massive public meltdowns in the last two years. In 2016, Cudi sent 168 threatening texts to his baby mother before being hospitalized for depression, and Kanye cancelled the remainder of his Saint Pablo tour after a nervous breakdown he’s since rebranded as a “breakthrough.” They beefed, stupidly, over authenticity and respect—Cudi called him a “jealous chicken-hearted shit,” Kanye was floored by Cudi’s harsh words, because West made it cool for black people to wear skinny jeans. On “Reborn”—in a way, an epilogue to 2009’s “Pursuit of Happiness”—Cudi sings, sagely, that both must “keep moving forward.” And then, out of the mist comes this Kanye verse, which is by far the most sensitivity he’s shown this album cycle that somehow, is only halfway finished:
Y’all been tellin’ jokes that’s gon’ stress me out
Soon as I walk in, I’m like “Let’s be out”
I was off the chain, I was often drained
I was off the meds, I was called insane
What a awesome thing, engulfed in shame
I want all the rain, I want all the pain
I want all the smoke, I want all the blame
Kids See Ghosts is best experienced as group therapy. It’s two men that have seen some very profound lows over the last few years, reconciling—with themselves, with each other, and with us, if you squint. This doesn’t mean that Kanye West couldn’t do with a lengthy—like, indefinite—sabbatical. But he’s also still a wizard behind the boards.