It was announced in April that a string of Kanye West-affiliated projects would be hitting the public this summer, and so far, fans have gotten the triumph of Pusha T’s DAYTONA alongside the relative banality of West’s own Ye.
Nas and Teyena Taylor projects are forthcoming, but fans have hotly anticipated the joint project from Kids See Ghosts, aka West and Kid Cudi. After some delay, an album listening party was livestreamed just prior to the album’s June 8 release date (Kanye’s 41st birthday), and the disappointing and infuriating West shenanigans that overshadowed these releases’ announcements seem to have suddenly taken a backseat to the actual music.
That doesn’t make Kanye any less insufferable, and its made for a confounding shift in tone surrounding the ongoing West conversation. But teamed with Cudi, West and his longtime collaborator get to lean on each other, and the result is a more full-bodied success than either has had in a long time. West’s new album Ye didn’t paint a very sympathetic picture of his current state of mind. But with Kids See Ghosts, Kanye opts for the cathartic as opposed to the curmudgeonly—and there’s no doubt that his fans have Kid Cudi to thank for that.
It feels bitterly appropriate that new music from Kid Cudi arrives as emotional well-being is once again front and center in the national dialogue. High-profile suicides and public breakdowns have thrust mental health into sharp focus. And no contemporary hip-hop artist has highlighted his own such battles in his music as consistently and creatively as Scott Mescudi. His music has been mood-drenched. He pushed Kanye West into his most emotionally-naked territory on 808s & Heartbreak a decade ago and spent the next couple of years both establishing his emo stoner sound on his early albums and branching out into alt-rock leanings on his 2012 WZRD project with Dot da Genius and 2015’s Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven. On Kids See Ghosts, Cudi and Kanye once again tap into each other’s strengths for an inspired project that stands as some of the best music they’ve made together.
“I can still feel the love!”
Right out the gate, Cudi cuts through with a pronouncement of positivity. Even with his distinctively digital warble making those words sound like aspiration more than confirmation, on “Feel the Love” Cudi is announcing that he can cut through darkness with light. But this is a Pusha-T showcase, and the G.O.O.D. Music prez comes with his own version of positive thinking: “Why would I wait when there’s other women? / Why would I hate? We in love with winnin’ / Buy her bundles, fly her out, bring her friend, I try her out / Ain’t no worries findin’ out, the details is ironed out.”
Cudi and Kanye’s interconnectedness is especially obvious on “Fire.” Sparingly featuring only a single verse from each rapper, they both offer a middle finger to the outside world, shielding themselves from self-doubt with hubris—and with two artists so famously thin-skinned, it sounds like they’re trying to convince themselves. But the defiance is another form of defense, and they don’t hide how much pain is present in facing their failings. The Louis Prima-sampling “4th Dimension” is one of the best songs here, a flip of “What Will Santa Claus Say” and another confessional for Cudi, in particular: “She been on me, boy, unless you got something to tell / Sittin’, waitin’ for me slippin’, yeah, I’ll see you in hell / Tell the cougar get up off me, no, my soul ain’t for sale / All the evils in the world, they keepin’ on me for real…”
Ty Dolla $ign guests on “Freee (Ghost Town Pt. 2),” the sequel to “Ghost Town” from Ye. It bests the original—another anthemic moment that’s both declaration of freedom and a celebration of self-actualization. Opening with a snippet of Marcus Garvey stating that, “When man becomes possessor of the knowledge of himself, he becomes the master of his environment,” the lyrics suggest no pain in understanding who you are. It’s an indicator that both Kanye and Cudi have become more understanding of how they manage their emotional welfare and cognizant of how spirituality has been a part of that.
That sense of hope is a ribbon throughout the album. There are clouds parting—even Kanye’s single-minded self-absorption is less grating here than on his recently-released solo project Ye. “Peace is something that starts with me,” Cudi croons in his distinctively detached monotone on “Reborn.” His mantra of “Keep moving forward” is such a plainly-stated affirmation that it winds up being the album’s most transcendent moment—it’s affecting because it’s so straightforward.
Featuring co-production from longtime Ye collaborators Plain Pat and Andrew Dawson, the title track is a fittingly spectral sound—eerie synths over slinky programmed drums—with Yasiin Bey chanting in a near-whisper on the chorus. Kid Cudi sounds more downbeat on the verses, even while declaring, “Y’all can’t move me, this is my movie.” Kanye charges in, breathlessly rapping about everything from being antisocial to opportunistic family members to hanging out in Switzerland. The outro, “Cudi Montage,” features a sample of Kurt Cobain strumming his guitar on a demo of “Burn the Rain” that was featured on the compilation from 2015’s gripping documentary Montage of Heck. It’s another fine point on the themes of psychosis and inner conflict, and Cudi pleads for love and light—but Kanye addresses violence in communities and shouts out the recent release of Alice Marie Johnson, who was sentenced to life in prison for drug trafficking in 1996. Johnson’s sentence was commuted by President Trump in the days prior to the album’s release after a highly-publicized White House meeting with Kim Kardashian West.
Cudi and Kanye’s history has its highs and lows. They’ve publicly fallen out with each other, gone through label squabbles, estrangements—which isn’t all that atypical of any Kanye West associate. But their musical bond has shaped a generation. That’s not an overstatement: there’s a direct link from 808s & Heartbreak to virtually every major artist that’s emerged in the 2010s. Drake, Frank Ocean, The Weeknd and a litany of others owe much of their sonic approach to the spacey, auto-tuned emoting that album embodied. Kanye, on his own, hasn’t been able to deliver much emotionally-evocative music on his most recent albums; his art was always inspired by his celebrity but is now suffocated by it. But with one of his longest-standing collaborators in Cudi, Kanye taps into more fully-formed musical expression.
These are two artists who have battled with themselves and each other, finding common ground—and creative purpose.