Kids See Ghosts, the self-titled debut by the super-duo of Kanye West and Kid Cudi, had plenty going against it before it dropped from the Wyoming wilderness. West had already delivered Pusha T’s Daytona and his own Ye, two LPs that garnered as much attention for the attending swirl of controversy — Push’s beef with Drake and the Daytona cover photo of Whitney Houston’s drug-strewn bathroom; Kanye’s bizarre statement that slavery “sounds like a choice” and his bromance with President Trump — as their creativity. With two West-produced albums still left to come this month, by Nas (June 15) and Teyana Taylor (June 22), there was the sense that there was already too much Kanye.
But sometimes all that goes out the window, and the right project magically appears at just the right time. With both West and Cudi having publicly admitted to their struggle with mental heath issues — Yeezy revealed on Ye that he has bipolar disorder; Cudi checked himself into rehab for depression and suicidal urges in 2016 — Kids See Ghosts offers hope, healing, and haunting music in the face of darkness.
The first and last words you hear on the album are telling. Cudi sings in a cathartic wail that “I can still feel the love,” on opener “Feel the Love,” finding both joy and purpose in that survivor cry, while the LP closes with one last repetition of the mantra “Stay strong,” on “Cudi Montage.” In between, Cudi and Kanye — collaborators going back to West’s 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak — craft a work that easily surpasses Ye both musically and emotionally.
While Kids See Ghosts feels more like a Cudi album than a Kanye one, it is a production showcase for both. “Feel the Love,” with West rapping and Cudi singing the hook, sets off with some ominous keys before launching into frenzied vocal gibberish reminiscent of German musician George Kranz’s ’80s dance hit “Din Daa Daa.” It’s almost as if an exorcism is being performed, banishing all the toxic energy to the tribal beat.
The sonic exploration doesn’t stop there: “4th Dimension” begins with a portion of “What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swingin’)” by the late New Orleans jazz man Louis Prima before banging out some freaky horror hip-hop that is as dope as it is disturbing.
“Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2)” — an immediate sequel to Ye’s “Ghost Town” — is the type of wide-screen soundscape that West constructed throughout his 2010 masterpiece, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “I don’t feel pain anymore,” West declares. Later, Cudi chimes in, “Feeling out of my past life/Died and came back twice/Now I’m free.” You can just feel those demons being kicked to the curb, and it’s a liberating rush.
Elsewhere, the melancholy meditation “Reborn” plays like a sequel to “Pursuit of Happiness,” off Cudi’s brilliant debut, 2009’s Man on the Moon: The End of Day. “I was off the meds/I was called insane/What a awesome thing,” West raps over the tinkling piano. Meanwhile, Cudi pushes his way through the murk: “Keep moving forward,” he repeatedly chants, as if to himself.
The title track spins a jungle groove as it confronts the monsters that lurk in our heads. Closer “Cudi Montage” — which, despite its title, also features West — samples Kurt Cobain’s “Burn the Rain” as Cudi offers encouragement to himself and others to “stay strong.” That Kids See Ghosts would sample an artist who died by suicide in the midst of their own mental health struggles is eerie. But it also leaves us with a message that, powerful in its simplicity, is as exceptional as the music.
The seven-song affair leaves you greedy for more when it’s over in a mere 23 minutes. But hopefully Kanye and Cudi have rid themselves of enough ghosts to bust out more of this kind of artistry. As West raps on “Fire,” “I done proved to myself, back on that rulin’ myself.”