Kanye West and Kid Cudi’s ‘Kids See Ghosts’ Is a Fringe Adventure From Two of Hip-Hop’s Most Colorful Personalities

Kanye West has been up to a lot lately, with a characteristically ambitious plan to release five albums in a row, one album per week. Three weeks in, he appears to be feeling the strains of his labor, as his listening party stream showed up nearly three hours late, and the songs appeared on major streaming services mistitled. Risk-taking has its consequences, of course, and the new album, “Kids See Ghosts,” is as much an exercise in risk-taking as you could imagine in hip-hop. The new record teams Ye up with longtime collaborator Kid Cudi, whose rise to fame owes much to Kanye’s signing him to his GOOD Music imprint in 2008. Anyone who’s heard Cudi’s era-defining hit, “Day and Night” will likely credit him for effortlessly tapping into a genre-blending aesthetic that was well ahead of its time. His experimentation has often been divisive, which makes him a natural pairing with Kanye, who is divisive in virtually every regard imaginable. The two’s collaboration is, expectedly, a wild ride. Consider the cover art by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, whose postmodern style, termed “Superflat,” combines elements of anime and manga with watercolors. The music is as abstract and adventurous as you might expect.

“Feel The Love” begins with Cudi announcing, “I can still feel the love,” setting the tone for his contributions to the album at large. Having admitted to suicidal tendencies, and checked himself into rehab in 2016, he seems to have rebounded proudly, and devotes much of this album to proving it. In fact, he often sounds like a pastor, but there’s an admirable positivity throughout. Pusha-T, who set off the first of Kanye’s five-in-a-row stretch, delivers the first verse, starting things off with some authentic New York grit. Then, the song suddenly goes absolutely bonkers, with Kanye taking the mic, and screaming “Gat-gat, gat, ga-gat-ga-ga-gat” and “Brrr-ah-da-da-da, brrr-ah-da-da-da,” with every sllable in sync with gunshot percussion. This goes on for quite a few bars — just Kanye yelling nonsensical gibberish. Sounds about right; isn’t it the same thing he’s been doing all along, just with a new level of purity? No fronting, no posturing, just nonsense. Actually, this is a moment of Kanye at his most lovable, as it demonstrates a humor and self-awareness that serves to color the rest of the album. The gibberish is almost definitely an allusion to English rapper and comedian Big Shaq’s hip-hop spoof, “Man’s Not Hot,” in which he pokes fun at the ridiculous ad libs that rappers come up with.

In “Fire,” Kanye West opens with, “I love all your shit talkin’.” Needless to say, the feeling is mutual. The song is sonically adventurous, albeit more subtly than the madcap opener. The beat is built on an overdriven guitar sample, yelps, handclaps, crashes, and what sounds like a cash register chime. There are bluesy hummed backing vocals, giving the song a southern gospel tinge. Cudi carries the song, with his distinctive style of singing and rapping. The song should ring instantly with any fans of Cudi’s aesthetic. He sings, “These scars I left behind / Heaven lift me up,” continuing the theme of his journey out of depression.

The signature style that brought Kanye West to fame, in the first place, was largely defined by his eccentrically creative and adept use of sampling. He’s always been one unafraid of taking risks, and if the lunatic guttural noises that opened the album weren’t enough proof that he’s sticking to form, nothing likely will. “4th Dimension” begins with a sample of “The King of Swing,” Louis Prima’s “What Will Santa Claus Say?” The sampled lyrics include, “And you’ll find that even the kiddies / Are swingin’ in the latest style / Oh, oh, oh / What is Santa bringing?” As absurd as a swing-jazz song about Father Christmas might seem, at face value, the lyrics make it sound just right. Kanye has always been about “swingin’ in the latest style.” Many of you will surely remember his impassioned tirade in the infamous Zane Lowe interview, in which he ranted about how his “leather jogging pants” were refused by every high-end designer, but are now ubiquitous on the streets. Right. Also, the line, “What is Santa bringing?” ties in well with the album title, “Kids See Ghosts.” Kanye West’s life seems so surreal, and his antics so theatrical, that it would make sense if he’s constantly chasing spirits and waiting for Santa, and somehow having it work out amazingly. Perhaps he’s retained the childhood spirit, resisted the austerity of mundane adulthood, and that’s his special secret. Whatever he’s doing, it certainly seems to be working — at least in terms of his success and popularity.  

“Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2) is a high point. It begins with a snippet of Marcus Garvey, declaring “Man in the full knowledge of himself is a superb and supreme creature of creation.” In other words, as Kanye famously claimed, “I am a god.” The song features blaring guitars, sounding like bombastic arena rock channeled via hip-hop, with a vaguely Sergeant Peppers-type campiness to it. West sings in the chorus, and somehow comes off sounding a bit like Lenny Kravitz. At one point, he boasts, “Nothing hurts me anymore,” which is to be believed, considering his openly known opiate addiction. Ye and Cudi take turns singing the chorus, and their different voices going through the same melody adds refreshing variety. Kanye continues the defense of his political comments that he began in “Ye,” claiming, “Ooh, one day they hate you / Next day they love you / I’m still yellin’, “fuck you.” At one point, the song evaporates into a chorus of treated voices in shifting, surreal harmonies, singing “freeeee,” creating a space rock vibe.  

“Reborn” veers back into more standard hip-hop territory, with a slick shuffling breakbeat variation as a backbone. The song is based around one of Cudi’s trademark catchy choruses. He sings, “I’m so-I’m so reborn, I’m movin’ forward / Keep movin’ forward, keep movin’ forward.” His backing vocals sound rather laughably amateurish, like off-key bellowing and gurgling, making you, at times, question how serious these guys can actually be. The song suddenly becomes a total banger in the last minute, when heavy trap drums enter the mix, with the incisive, hiccuping, syncopated snares lifting the song in to a higher plane, and allowing the song to take on a new form completely.

The titular track is based on a tiny beat that sounds like some sort of casio keyboard preset. The tuned percussion, and minimalism does have a trancelike effect, however, that grows downright infectious by the song’s end. Kanye repeats, “Kids See Ghosts sometimes,” sounding a bit like a child, struggling to work his way through a simple melody to an audience of overenthusiastic parents. Cudi picks up, and sounds very much the same. It does serves to convey the spectral nature of the titular line. Also the titular line is in ¾ time, over a 4/4 beat, giving it a nice, slightly off-kilter element. Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, makes an appearance, and his laid-back swag and distinctive drawl are a refreshing sound. He raps, “Civilization, without society / Power and wealth with nobility / Stability, without stasis.” Come to think of it, the whole album is simultaneously both futuristic and primitive, and these lyrics capture the feel effectively.

“Cudi Montage” is based around a sample of a guitar riff from Kurt Cobain’s “Burn the Rain,” and the song’s title ostensibly refers to the posthumous collection of home recordings, “Montage of Heck,” from which the song is culled. This is another track that Cudi owns, with his flow and melodies defining the song, and Kanye just making a rather jarring appearance on the mic midway. The gospel feel that has been a thread throughout the album is pronounced here with the encouraging reminder, “Hmm-mm-mm, woah, woah / Stay strong,” and the refrain, “Lord shine your light on me, save me, please.”

Kid Cudi is widely regarded as a forward-thinking voice in hip-hop, and Kanye West is ubiquitously recognized as someone who, at least, regards himself as a forward-thinking voice in all conceivable disciplines. The collaborative effort of the two is, in many ways, everything you would expect: an over-the-top, bizarre mashup, both confusing and exhilarating. Tip your hat, and shrug your shoulders simultaneously, and that should get the point across. Overall, it’s a lighthearted, adventurous art project, with plenty exciting, inventive moments, at least as many WTF moments, and an overall playful and daring spirit that is ultimately applaudable and entertaining.  

Kids With Ghostsis available June 8 on Apple Music.