It’s all in the subtle friction. Kid Cudi, king of the “just enough” singing style that has become a staple of new-age rap, endured three years of post-Kanye animosity from fans, and himself. From 2008 to 2013, Cudi and Kanye West were heroes from Hancock, invincible when apart; human, and penetrable, when together. The string of successes they had can attest to the fact that there was enough genius in their corner to fuel an entire generation — hell, look at five of your favorite rappers sub-25 and you’ll find the two emo progenitors’ influence somewhere.
But when Cudi departed G.O.O.D. Music in 2013, the prickly anger began to surface. It came to a head in September of 2016, with Cudi lashing out in an extended Twitter rant, claiming Kanye was the product of his many collaborators. Kanye blew up in return in one of his infamous rants, barking “I birthed you!” with fangs fully flared.
A few days later, the beef subsided. Kanye apologized, Cudi went to rehab soon after. Substance abuse was revealed to be the catalyst for the latter’s artistic downfall. When he emerged, revitalized, he reflected on his career, thanking everyone involved with his rise — chiefly, Kanye. With that, they were back on. Two peas of the same pod. Crazed geniuses with a knack for striking gold by searching where there isn’t any.
Apologies came rapid. Forgiveness came quick. The boiling anger from years of friction finally manifests, in the best possible way, on Kids See Ghosts, the self-titled album of Kanye and Cudi’s new duo, finally coming together as an official union of two geniuses that like to experiment with rap’s conventions. The album seethes with rage in its rousing production, but the general vibe is more. But make no mistake — ‘Ye and Cudi are flared up here, easily producing the best album from the G.O.O.D. Music five-week machine thus far.
I’ve never listened to an album that required me to turn down the volume instead of turning it up — even if I thoroughly enjoyed it. Kids See Ghosts doesn’t waste any time with introductions: “Feel the Love” roars into the headphones with a jagged edge, its harshness cutting through the ears while Pusha T sneaks in. You’re immediately reminded of the suaveness of Pusha’s Daytona, but Kanye’s brash workings waste no time pulling you from your comfort zone, a suspiciously ‘Ye-like voice scatting over horrifying blasts of bass. Cudi sounds like he’s trying here, a difference between this outing and all of Speeding Bullet 2 Heaven.
With all of its presumed angst exhumed on its first cut, you’d be forgiven if you expected the album to take a left turn into more relaxing territory. Wrong. “Fire” explodes into the ears at a similar velocity, a prominent tambourine pounding away to add some worldly zest. Kanye comes in here like ye, his own album, was an afterthought. He quips quickly, breathlessly and, believe it or not, intelligently. There’s nary a throwaway bar here. Maybe he’s out to prove Cudi wrong, that he is more than the sum of his collaborators. What better way to do that then to exemplify top-notch rapping on a joint project with your main naysayer? Of course, water’s under the bridge, but you should never pass up an opportunity to one-up them.
The star of the show is Kanye West, undeniably. From the gigantic, stout, purposefully garish production to the no-bullshit approach to raps that wasn’t the case for his solo project, Kanye really, really wants it to be evident that he’s going all out. On “Kids See Ghosts,” Kanye may not come in until nearly two minutes, but he sounds hungry, like he’s finally found the competition that’s evaded him for years. I hear traces of recently unwired-face ‘Ye, eager to outrap everyone in his vicinity. It’s shocking, and somewhat ironic, that it took a collaborative tape with one of his closest friends, who’s not really even a rapper at all, to bring it out of him. Mos Def adds his grizzled exuberance on the chorus and at the tail-end as Cudi floats his voice around both guys, his strident singing bordering on bothersome only in this instance.
Cudi even sounds more focused here than on the half-baked recent attempts at relevancy on Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin. The no-bullshit approach works here as well; even though his particular brand of crooning isn’t for everyone, it sounds much more accessible and un-niche. You no longer have to be conditioned to his brand to enjoy him up here — it’s just soothing enough to warrant downloading it. “Reborn” is Cudi at his best, channeling the dearth of his experiences in a moving hook about progressing regardless of the circumstances. His singing is in tune, not tone-deaf. It’s eldritch, but it’s fitting.
Kids See Ghosts continues the two-album trend so far of skirting around having a consistent theme. Being that both artists have experienced their fair share of mental health issues, you’d expect a stronger emphasis on the problems that inflict damage on us and that can’t be fixed with a simple trip to the doctor. There are flashes of this in “Reborn,” “Feel the Love,” and “Fire,” but then the nonsensical rhymes that Kanye, in particular, tends to revel in manifest themselves. Every now and then though, a timely gem comes from ‘Ye’s lips — this time, “Everybody wants world peace/ Until your niece gets shot in the dome piece/then you go and buy your own piece/Hoping that it well help you find your own peace.” Of course, having seven songs could prevent it from going the narrative route and telling a story, so maybe that’s just wishful thinking. For what it’s worth, mental health, trials and tribulations, and forgiveness do all appear here in varying quantities.
What’ll endure from Kids See Ghost is the chemistry that comes from the troubled history that Kanye and Cudi share with each other. They’re geniuses in their respective lanes, but when they come together, they’re legendary. Of course, they still have individual kinks to work out, like ‘Ye’s struggle bars that pop up every now and then, and Cudi’s still annoying singing tendencies that crop up far less usual than normal but, together, they act as the creative control for each other that they both desperately need. If ye and Passion, Pain, & Demon Slayin are any indicators, it’s that when left to their own devices, Kanye and Cudi can strike out. But when they’re down to hold each other accountable, Kids See Ghosts occurs. The seven-track structure only hurts the project if you’re looking for an overall theme, but just appreciating the music for the subtle glimpses it offers into the inner-workings of their psyches is enough to make it worthwhile. Kanye’s production is the best it’s ever been here and one of the reasons that it works so well.
Their history may be painted with disagreements and friction, but the future of Kids See Ghosts could be very bright. With their self-titled album, Kanye and Cudi have created a winning formula, one that consists of Kanye’s angry production and Cudi’s improving melodies. Let’s just hope that the two don’t grow too accustomed to fame, become divas, and…I should stop right there.
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