To say Kanye West and Kid Cudi have had a tumultuous relationship is an understatement. Regardless of who subtweeted whom, and who stole vocals from the other, the pair made up in endearing fashion during Kanye’s equally tumultuous “Pablo” tour. Their reconciliation was no doubt in part due to each artist’s struggle with mental health; Kanye’s bipolar disorder and Cudi’s suicidal depression seemed to be a point of bonding and understanding between the two hip-hop superstars.
Kids See Ghosts—the third album in G.O.O.D. Music’s Kanye-produced, five-part summer release schedule—dives further into the duo’s shared trauma and volatility with a refined soundscape of industrial production, grungey aesthetic, and Cudi’s signature moan-croon. It’s a welcome return (and noted improvement) of Kanye’s aggressively discordant Yeezus-style wokeness, as well as a continuation of Cudi’s guitar-dominant direction he’s showcased on records such as WZRD and Speeding Bullet to Heaven. The usual suspects are here as well as some eyebrow-raisers—Mike Dean, Dot Da Genius, Cudi collaborator Plain Pat, and Jeff Bhasker all lend their hands to the supernatural production on Ghosts in addition to a wild André 3000 credit and a Kurt Cobain sample, Cudi’s most direct homage to the late grunge idol yet.
However, by reaching back to some of these sonic habits, the album suffers from their shortcomings almost as much as it benefits from their innovations. Cudi’s penchant for over-using a phrase or melody is stretched to its absolute max on the melodically pleasant yet entirely overlong “Reborn.” Kanye’s let’s-see-if-I-can-get-away-with-this-experimentation-for-experimentation’s-sake philosophy is in full effect with his ridiculous gunfire adlibs on opener “Feel the Love.” These hilariously bad yet energetic braps and kaacks begin by drowning out the final bars of Pusha T’s typically cooled-out opening verse, continue into an almost-unrecognizable tempo, and end with confounding auto-tuned “woo-woo’s.” It’s trying to be discordant, but it just comes off as grating.
Nevertheless, there are many moments where Kanye and Cudi’s chemistry is undeniable and infectious. It is in these moments that the album feels like a true rekindling of a creative streak for the two. “4th Dimension” is a fun brag-rap track that highlights the trappings of glamour over a nasty, club-ready banger of a beat. Freeee (Ghost Town, Pt. 2), the album’s gran crescendo, blesses us with some of Kanye’s best singing in years bolstered by Cudi’s beautiful harmonization over a driving prog-rock instrumental.
Kids See Ghosts also sees Kanye in top lyrical form. He uses the album’s title track, which features a welcome visit from Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def), to further elaborate on his post-TMZ state of mind with some self-aware lines:
“Paid this shit just gon’ give up, ’cause Ye just gon’ live up
To everything that sucks to you and that’s never enough.”
He knows he can’t please everyone—though it seems he’s been going out of his way to displease everyone as of late. Conversely, Kanye makes a much-needed return to the everyman”conscious” rap we all fell in love with on “Cudi Montage” (or is it “Devil’s Watchin?“). The song’s chilling verse details the desperate cycle of violence resulting from a loved one’s murder:
“Everybody want world peace
‘Til your niece get shot in the dome-piece
Then you go and buy your own piece
Hopin’ it’ll help you find your own peace”
The album’s central concept is delivered in Cudi’s first line on KSG: “I can still feel the love.” Despite his unstable relationship with Kanye, despite the drugs and the depression and the fame and the bullshit of it all, there’s still optimism—there’s still a point to living, loving, and creating art that can be recepted by an adoring fanbase. “Feel the love” here reads more like a desperate self-reminder than milquetoast, everyday self-affirmation. For Cudi and Kanye, self-discovery and self-realization come from their individual struggles to understand themselves in a vacuum. Cudi reaffirms this sentiment through his signature mewling on the title track:
“I guessin’ I’m just sick of runnin’
All this time searchin’ hard for somethin’
I can hear the angels comin'”
Despite its occasional missteps, Kids See Ghosts tastefully merges hip-hop, industrial, and grunge sounds into a melodic, sullen, and inventive album that’s sure to please Cudi and Kanye fans alike. If 808’s and Heartbreak was a collaborative invention of auto-tune trap-brooding born of love lost, Kids See Ghosts is the refinement of grunge-rap born of hope for one’s future while in the throes of mental anguish.