With Kid Cudi’s help, it’s on ‘Kids See Ghosts’ that Kanye West makes a firm attempt to change things through a vessel other than himself.
While his controversies this spring seemed to be engulfing him, Kanye West expressed via Twitter his desire to love everyone and look past personal differences. In that spirit, this review will focus solely on his most recent project, Kids See Ghosts (released June 8, 2018 via GOOD Music / Def Jam), a collaboration with Kid Cudi, and the third of five weekly Kanye-produced releases. The dreamlike cover art, courtesy of Takashi Murakami, gives a good sense of its sonic framework, which distills, among other elements, a Kurt Cobain sample, raunchy synthesizers, and meticulously programmed trap drums into a concise and wildly colorful product.
‘Kids See Ghosts’ – Kanye West, Kid Cudi
The album’s release, in typical Kanye fashion, was drawn out and tumultuous—the livestream of its premiere was significantly delayed, and most streaming services somehow missed the memo on the official tracklist. As the similarly chaotic drop of The Life of Pablo suggested, West makes music for himself first and foremost; some of it might eventually trickle out to his audience, but he’s in no rush to satisfy. On his 2016 Saint Pablo Tour, he shouted, “This is my favorite song!” at the beginning of “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”—maybe he meant it’s his favorite song that he’s written, but it’s equally conceivable that he meant his favorite song of all time.
All of his projects this summer are seven songs long, and this leanness has troubled some fans and critics. He is exceedingly self-aware, though, and insists on having the last laugh—he mocks his naysayers at the end of “4th Dimension” with a sample of Shirley Ann Lee saying, “That’d be enough for a record, I mean, you only want two and a half minutes if you can get it, you know, three minutes max.” Brevity, in reality, forces the often maximalist Kanye to make each track razor-sharp. Despite, or maybe because of, its short run-time, Kids See Ghosts is a well-focused triumph, channeling Cudi’s fondness for psychedelia into something that is at once soul, ambient rap, and indie rock.
The record kicks off with “Feel the Love,” a gritty rap song anchored by gunshot percussion and Yeezus-y synths. Oddly enough, its only real verse (and an excellent one, at that) comes from Pusha T, yet there is an audible sense of innocence and joy in what Kanye and Cudi are doing. Their violent ad-lib noises carry a large chunk of the track, including West’s whole “verse,” and the pre-chorus is just one line: “Where’s the chorus?” Immediately, Cudi’s answers over a smoked-out adaptation of the song’s main instrumental: “I can still feel the love.” This one may take time to settle in, but its title is no mistake—even though Kanye’s solo album ditched the working title LOVE EVERYONE, it’s a sentiment that pervades everything he touches these days.
Another aptly titled track, “Fire,” follows right after, featuring guest production work from André 3000—which is all the more exciting after Kanye hyped up a guest feature that never arrived on TLOP (“3 Stacks, can you help me out?”). Kanye seems to stumble accidentally into his opening verse, yet close listening reveals how he takes on the calculated air of an improv comic looking to find some footing before diving in. He begins with the spoken-work “I love all your shit talkin’” before venting some anger with a flow so furious that André’s presence must be compelling him to bring the heat. Snarling guitars, lo-fi drums, and background humming from Cudi call to mind the arena-shaking “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” and as Cudi boastfully dismisses judgment on his first real verse on the album, he matches the beat’s intensity with his own. “This the type shit that they couldn’t make/ Watch the fakes/ Leave ‘em buzzin’, thought they wasn’t, huh?” he raps, before eventually concluding with a passionate outro (“Heaven lift me up”). Here, Kanye and Cudi reveal that they both have demons that haunt them, but neither wants, or allows, this to define them.
Built off of an old Louis Prima sample, “4th Dimension” pays homage to the days of “Jesus Walks” and chop-up-the-soul-Kanye. The sample (“Oh, oh, oh / What is Santa bringing?”) acknowledges the dynamic between West and his fans, who eagerly await and devour his work. Kanye’s verse is packed with some clever (and some less clever) lines that detail a sexual encounter. It will undoubtedly infuriate some listeners, which he actually recognizes: “This the theme song, oh something wrong.” Cudi’s dense verse references his personal struggles over the past few years. He clarifies that this is indeed the theme song, which makes more sense than Kanye’s claim once he wraps thing up: “But you don’t hear me though, drama, we let it go / Watch the guitars roll, and let your friends know.” Leaving their personal baggage behind, the two take this opportunity to launch into their most guitar-heavy track, which will likely become one of the record’s most popular.
“4th Dimension” – KIDS SEE GHOSTS
The official sequel to Ye’s “Ghost Town” (which also features Kid Cudi), “Freeee” continues the duo’s celebration of defying cultural norms, and its opening sample of a warped Marcus Garvey speech emphasizes independence and self-control. Kanye even references his polarizing “Lift Yourself” with a brief “scoop” ad-lib that brushes off those who dismissed it as a joke. Like its predecessor, this is a soaring soul-rock hybrid about ignoring what once caused pain. Lyrically, it’s pretty simple, but every line is chanted so earnestly that their claims of “feeling free” are entirely convincing. Kanye uses his freedom to rid himself of a filter, which has arguably always been a defining characteristic of his, and interjects that “you should quit your job to this.” Frequent collaborator Ty Dolla $ign comes in with a tongue-in-cheek protest: “Hold up, that’ll politic / Ooh, one day they hate you / Next day they love you / I’m still yellin, ‘Fuck you’ / I could never trust.” Evidently, Kanye has no plans to filter himself, as he indicated on Ye, and Ty notes that despite the opposition, the hitmaker is still in full command, capable of moving listeners with his art alone.
The delicate highlight “Reborn,” one of the only tracks that West didn’t produce, builds on this notion of freedom over a sleek piano-driven beat that allows some space for Kid Cudi’s signature humming and off kilter melodies to shine. Kanye’s verse is particularly strong here, tackling his antisocial tendencies, opioid addiction, and bipolar disorder. “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,” he spits over swaggering drums, eventually chiding his opponents: “All of you Mario, it’s all a game.” Cudi’s verse, mostly sung by contrast, explores his own mental health and drug dependency. “I had my issues, ain’t that much I could do / But, peace is something that starts with me, with me.” Regardless of the drama surrounding the two, who as recently as 2016 were feuding with each other, there is a determination here to leave behind the past and “keep movin’ forward,” as Cudi recites throughout.
“Reborn” – KIDS SEE GHOSTS
“Kids See Ghosts” is a spooky reflection on the difficulties of fame and success. Its cerebral production grants some room for surprisingly chilling sounds that could nicely compliment a scary movie. Throbbing synths and clicking percussion propel Cudi’s loose, sleepy verse, in which he comments on his struggle to find happiness. Kanye’s, by contrast, is tight and refined, an active attempt to live up to his own legacy: “Well it took me long enough to rap on this strong enough / Paid this shit just gon’ give up ‘cause Ye just gon’ live up / To everything that sucks to you and that’s never enough / Thought I’d be clever enough to give up while I’m ahead.” Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) contributes to the song’s themes of paranoia and darkness with a hook that declares, “Kids see ghosts sometimes/ Spirit, moving around, just moving around.” Kanye and Cudi’s demons don’t directly attack them, but are an ever-present reminder that, as he explains on Ye’s opening track, “The most beautiful thoughts are always besides the darkest.”
“Kids See Ghosts” – KIDS SEE GHOSTS
Which brings us to “Cudi Montage,” the big finale with the aforementioned Cobain sample. An acoustic guitar and polished drums carry the two verses, separated by a mellow, synth driven chorus that finds the duo asking the Lord for salvation. Cudi raps about “sinkin’ lower” and introduces the song’s overtly religious themes. Kanye throws down a rhyme-packed performance that tackles gang warfare and makes one of the album’s most political statements:
All growin’ up in environment
Where doin’ crime the requirement
They send us off to prison for retirement
Hopefully Alice Johnson will inspire men
Here he returns to the environment that made him — Chicago, which he recently called the “murder capital of the world” — which is swarming with ghosts that have followed him for his entire career. Maybe he feels he hasn’t done enough and is plagued by survivor’s guilt; maybe he has big plans for the future. Regardless, it’s on this track that the album’s title really comes into full clarity. These aren’t violent ghosts from a horror film—these ghosts weigh on their consciences, constantly pushing them to be better.
With Cudi’s help, it’s on Kids See Ghosts that Kanye makes a firm attempt to change things through a vessel other than himself: “Lord, shine your light on me, save me, please.” For the first time in a while, the man who titled a track “I Am A God” looks up, recognizes his place in the world, and feels that he cannot endure on his own. It’s an all-too-human conclusion to one of his most personal and unusual projects.
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📸 © Takashi Murakami