Through day ‘n’ night, cruel summers and G.O.O.D. Fridays, superstar button-pusher Kanye West and paranoid android cult hero Kid Cudi have remained thought leaders since they started working together nearly 10 years ago. Kanye’s grain-rubbing résumé in the last decade includes a nine-minute vocoder-prog opus, a minimalist industrial noise suite and an album that occasionally got upgraded like software. Cudi is far less provocative than his MAGA-hatted boss, but he still cut a singular figure as he held strong to a stark vision as an indie-rock-loving sci-fi depressive, a lonely stoner constantly working out the cosmic slop in his head. Though he hasn’t had a hit single since 2009, Cudi’s mix of genre-free utopianism and raw, uncut emotion helped pave the way for Logic, Childish Gambino, Raury, Travis Scott and more.
It’s hard to really pinpoint if the duo are innovators or followers on their seven song, 23-minute collaboration as Kids See Ghost, a Watch the Throne-style collabo that’s less luxury rap than a stream for sitting alone in a four-cornered room staring at candles. Kanye West’s productions on this and his recently released Ye feel like answers to the demo-quality sketches and diaristic depression of modern Soundcloud rappers like Lil Pump and XXXtentacion. Rather than the baroque soul symphonies and conflicted raps that made West, Soundcloud rap is a place where it’s more important to catch a vibe, invent a meme or cut a raw nerve. And sometimes West and Cudi get their Grown Man Gucci Gang on. Cudi sings the phrase “feel the love” in the distended yowl of Young Thug or D.R.A.M. 17 times in less than three minutes. West fills the album with catchy gibberish like the Waka Flocka Flame-style gunshots (“Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba!”) or his new syllable of choice “Scoop!” (a callback to “Lift Yourself” a full song of “scoopy-dee poop” jabberwocky released in April). The narcotic repetition of “Reborn” feels like that Post Malone YouTube that was just the chorus of “Rockstar” looped over and over again.
If Ye and Kids See Ghost are partially responses to bleeding-edge, teenager-approved modern rap music, it’s pretty brave and fairly smart (check out the rhythmic sophistication behind his Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-bas in “Feel the Love”). But the result feels more like when the Rolling Stones, Elton John or Robert Plant would make New Wave records in the early Eighties – it’s cool, catchy, contemporary, but not exactly why we’re here.
Still, “4th Dimension” and “Freee (Ghost Town Pt. 2)” deliver on the partnership’s promise, both nothing short of fantastic. West’s sample-chopping is still masterful in the former. He already made Ray Charles, Otis Redding and Michael Jackson sound brand new on a handful of hits (“Gold Digger,” “Otis” and “Good Life,” respectively), and now he manages to do the same with a 1936 joint by big-band jazz great Louis Prima, turning “What Will Santa Claus Say?” into an unsettling, funky Greek chorus to West and Cudi’s old-fashioned rap boasts. With vocals from Ty Dolla Sign, “Freee (Ghost Town Pt. 2)” is gorgeously arranged like something on 2010’s epic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with a more spontaneous feel.
For Cudi’s part, he’s mostly drowned out by his louder, more dynamic, spotlight-stealing, scenery chewing, “Scoop!”-ing partner. Still, Cudi’s lyrics, while more muted than West’s, are an album-long search. Here, someone who has spent years rapping about depression and addiction starts looking for forgiveness, peace and salvation. He croons on the title track: “Reachin’ out, huntin’ for the truth/I’m guessin’ I’m just sick of runnin’/All this time searching hard for somethin’/I can hear the angels comin.'”
Cudi wrangling with his mental health is more mature and far less flashy than the sample trail would lead you to believe: The drums from “Fire” are taken from the infamous 1966 black comedy novelty record “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!”; the guitar from “Cudi Montage” is borrowed from the demos of notable depression sufferer Kurt Cobain, which surfaced in 2015.
Those Cobain demos were but sketches and ideas – the same with a clip of gospel singer Shirley Ann Lee. Her voice, recorded sometime in the late Sixties, comes at the end of “4th Dimension,” recontextualized to almost work like a Dogme 95-style vision for West’s output in the Soundcloud era: “Just do that and then let the music do somethin’, then do that again, that’d be enough for a record,” she says. “I mean, you only want two and a half minutes if you can get it, you know, three minutes max.” West’s career is dotted by Jon Brion string arrangements, Elton John and Paul McCartney guest vocals. Cudi’s released an album as a 90-minute double CD. Though nowhere near as incisive, infectious or rewarding as their best work, Kids See Ghosts is still an important step forward into an era of big moods and short attention spans.