By Eóin Donnelly
Fandom is misery by choice. It was a few minutes past 6am, over two hours later than the original stream time of Kids See Ghosts, and there I lay sprawled half-asleep and stoned on the floor with one hand trying to operate the exasperatingly malfunction-prone WAV app and the other slapping myself in my face to stay awake, undeniably defeated yet stubbornly defiant that I would be conscious to hear what Kanye West and Kid Cudi’s debut collaborative album would bring. A fruitless endeavour. As excited as I was for Kids See Ghosts, and as many times as I smacked myself in the cranium, it still wasn’t enough to conquer Kanye’s notorious tardiness. For a man who once said we should be honoured by his lateness, it came as no surprise. I’m not about to get salty. I know all too well the collateral suffering that comes with loving Kanye West, and Kids See Ghosts is yet another piece of musical gold that proves why it’s all so worth it.
When I first found out that Kanye West was releasing two albums within the space of one week in June, I was ecstatic. No artist has made as much music I love as Kanye West. With albums and songs for every mood and occasion, I’ve spent more time listening to him than most other artists combined. Along with the three albums he would be producing for Pusha T’s fantastic, already-released DAYTONA and the still-to-come albums from Nas and Teyana Taylor, Yeezy Season never sounded so exciting. Last week, however, I had a feeling I have never had in my entire life: I was disappointed by a Kanye West album. Ordinarily, I’m quite difficult to please, but the mediocrity of ye represented something new to me, that even my greatest musical heroes weren’t infallible, that even a consistently pioneering titan of audio innovation like Kanye could create something ordinary. At first, I did everything a superfan does as coping mechanisms to maintain the naive illusion that their gods never had to cling desperately to the pedestal they hoisted them upon. For one thing, I read into the lyrics, interpolating profound meanings that weren’t really there; and as happy as I was to hear Kanye in a more optimistic state of mind, the gratitude I felt that he is still with us overshadowed my feelings on the music itself. A Kanye West album is meant to be analysed, reanalysed, taken apart and put back together again until we realise a thousand more things we love about it. Within just a weekend of listening to ye, I was already bored. Eventually, after a whole weekend of listening I had to admit the difficult truth: ye is the musical equivalent of a shrug. The default image of Kanye that resonates in my mind is the mythological hero of the ‘Power’ video, the 21st Century Schizoid Man that was now slowly fading away and being replaced by an artistically uninspired, lyrically impotent imposter. In the week that followed ye, I found myself asking questions that would daunt any Kanye superfan: has Kanye lost his genius? Is a bipolar disorder diagnosis the one hurdle he can’t overcome? Will Kids See Ghosts be the death knell of Kanye’s career, at least outside producing?
Thankfully, Kids See Ghosts is an album to send your demons packing and put your worst fears about Kanye West’s artistic decline to bed. I may be focusing on my teenage hero Kanye a little too much, as kudos of course must go to Kid Cudi also, who as one half of KSG delivers his best full-length offering since his classic debut, Man on the Moon: The End of Day. For the most part in fact, the album’s production is curated with Cudi in mind, a sonic bag of treats for those who vibe to the gloomy, celestial exploration of his early material as well as the rap rock stylings he executed memorably on Kanye-featuring ‘Erase Me’ and less so on the disastrous Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven and his side project WZRD.
The sign of a great producer is one who knows how to get the best out of their collaborator. Just as he did on Pusha T’s luxurious and gritty DAYTONA, Kanye again delivers for Cudi, serving up a cathartic collection of eerie chopped-up samples that Cudi was (re)born to hum over. Were it not for the underwhelming ye dampening expectations, this would come as no surprise, as Kanye and Cudi have arguably been hip-hop’s most fruitful partnership of the past decade, beginning with Kanye’s stylistic Big Bang808s & Heartbreak that was so heavily-influenced by the hitherto-unknown Cudi and continuing right up to ‘Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1’ off Kanye’s last album, The Life of Pablo. If I can feel aggrieved about anything Kids See Ghosts-related it’s that it took until 2018 to become a thing.
Granted, the KSG album we would have got in, say 2009, would be a whole lot different to the 2018 version. Kids See Ghosts is primarily centred around the mental health struggles of the two protagonists. Though publicly adored and celebrated as highly-influential artists, both men are no stranger to personal torment. It’s a fair argument, however, that the latter months of 2016 represented the nadir of both, with Cudi admitting himself to rehab for “depression and suicidal urges” and West succumbing to an opioid addiction that ended up in being handcuffed to a hospital bed and being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. On being separated from his friends in hospital and put in an elevator, Kanye said the experience was the scariest of his life. Cudi, on the other hand, promised he would return “stronger, better, reborn.” Almost two years on, I’m sure it is no coincidence that ‘Reborn’ is the title of the best song on KSG. It’s a highly emotional track that will have many holding back the tears, a beautiful downbeat melody designed to lullaby inner demons where both Kids See Ghosts members reflect very different experiences of mental illness. For the extroverted Kanye, as a result of his bipolar disorder his mental illness manifests itself in histrionic manic episodes: “I was off the chain, I was often drained/I was off the meds, I was called insane/What an awesome thing, engulfed in shame.” Where were these lyrics on ye? ‘Reborn’ is Kanye’s best verse since ‘Saint Pablo.’ The more introverted Cudi, on the other hand, is troubled by loneliness and feeling worthless as a result of a lack of purpose. As we are often told, spotting the signs of depression is difficult, but Kanye and Cudi serve as reminders that mental illness can take residence in totally different personas. At well over a minute longer than any other track on the album, the hymnal ‘Reborn’ is clearly ordained as the emotional centrepiece of KSG, a funeral for the ego and a rebirth of inner peace. It is a courageous song where the scars of Kanye and Cudi’s collective psyche are placed front-and-centre in a way that befits their iconic legacy of fostering vulnerability in hip-hop, challenging narrow conceptions of black masculinity at a time when suicide is rising exponentially. In many ways, the simple repeated mantra of ‘Reborn’ is the central message of Kids See Ghosts: “I’m so- I’m so reborn, I’m movin’ forward/Keep movin’ forward, keep movin’ forward.”
But what about the music? Can Kanye still flip a sample so good that it makes you scratch your head first and bop it later? He sure can. Whereas the beats on ye sounded rushed and underdeveloped, the beats on KSG have some meat on ’em, crafting a sonic mood board that evokes thoughts of psilocybin mushroom trips, spiritual healing and yes, ghosts. Kanye’s beats, which are a fitting canvas for the cathartic subject matter, again push the sonic parameters of hip-hop in a way he hasn’t done so consistently since Yeezus. Most notably, on ‘4th Dimension’ Kanye bends a 1936 sample from Louis Prima’s ‘What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swingin’)’, somehow turning a jolly festive jingle into a haunting banger complete with laughter creepier than a stranger’s unbroken eye contact. Elsewhere, the synth-laden opener ‘Feel The Love’ is a scattershot doorway to the world of KSG where a brash Pusha T verse can co-exist with Kanye’s erratic percussive rambling (“Grrrat, gat-gat-gat”) and Cudi’s idiosyncratic Martian harmonies. As an introduction, it’s a bizarre choice to have a rapper other than Cudi or Kanye emerge first from behind the curtain, and ‘Feel The Love’ sticks out like it just had a thumb war with Thanos. However, the trifecta melds surprisingly well, with Kanye’s onomatopoeiac ad-libs unintentionally hilarious simply for the fact that I can imagine how much fun he had recording them. This is a common theme in Kids See Ghosts; whereas Kanye’s newfound optimism on ye sounded like an exercise in self-delusion, with Cudi he seems genuinely reinvigorated, colouring dark soundscapes with the zany eccentricities of his voice as Cudi blends in seamlessly.
By and large, KSG mines the rap rock territory that Cudi has made his stamping ground, an ambitious yet disciplined album that highlights his strengths and mitigates his wayward artistic indulgences. Cudi is far from a conventionally great vocalist, but his tribal throat singing style and the magic wand of Kanye’s dab production hand is a dream combination. The vintage, inter-dimensional Cudi hums appear for the first time on ‘Fire’, which also merges a soothing Cudi hook and mystical flutes with the lo-fi guitar sample. “Heaven lift me up”, Cudi implores, the man on the moon now looking beyond the stars to a higher power and other dimensions for solace. It all sounds like emerging from a hallucination at a bonfire. If he ever retires from music, wouldn’t Cudi make for a great shaman?
As the sequel to ‘Ghost Town’- by far the best offering on ye– ‘Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2)’ is the wackiest song of all, all droning guitars and grimy drums colliding against another as an angelic Ty Dolla $ign chorus toasts newfound freedom. “You should quit your job to this”, Kanye sings, a day too late after I quit mine last Thursday. Although the beat is a little too minimal, the Mos Def-featuring title track too is suitably sinister, with trademark humorous bars from Kanye (“I like breakfast in bed, but I love breakfast and head”) coalescing with lines that allude to his using the Holy Ghost of Christianity to conquer his inner demons. The Chicago rapper is to controversy what bees are to honey, but with his “slavery is a choice” comments and MAGA-hat wearing antics Kanye is poorer than ever in the currency of public opinion, and in that sense the repentance exhibited on KSG is a refreshing change in tact.
Thematically, rebirth, feeling free and asking to be saved by God are artistic clichés that could’ve been boring were it not for the dynamic production, experimental vocals and emotionally charged context surrounding Kids See Ghosts. Kanye basically taught me what being an artist means, while Cudi will forever be synonymous with my first ever trip to the centre of the soul on magic mushrooms, all of us strolling whimsically around the streets of Amsterdam while doing our best hum to Cudi’s ‘Frequency.’ The outro to Kids See Ghosts, ‘Cudi Montage’, is as cathartic a musical moment as you will hear all year, actually functioning as a montage of Cudi’s best bits by amalgamating Cudi’s grunge inclinations as well as the astral wonderment that the lonely stoner made his own. ‘Cudi Montage’ hints at a nebulous higher power that a slowly healing Cudi looks toward for aid, all too aware yet assuaged by the fact he’s been mired in darkness many times before: “Pain in my eyes, in the time I find, I’m stronger than I ever was/Here we go again, God, shine your love on me, save me, please.” Kanye delivers one of his best verses in years, lamenting the counter-productive cycle of violence sparked by acts of vengeance (“Both sides lose somebody/Somebody die, somebody goes to jail”) and making a timely reference to the momentous release of Alice Johnson. It’s a glimpse of something resembling the ‘old Kanye’, one that uses the power of his voice for the good of his community.
“If you’re a Kanye West fan, you’re a fan of yourself”, Kanye once memorably declared, ostensibly arguing that the confident tone of his music is meant to empower the listener. Upon surveying the milestones of his legendary career, it’s true that were the music not made for our self-esteem it was at least for our approval. Kanye clearly craves the genius tag, to be seen as an auteur of taste rather than just another face in the hip-hop crowd, but Kids See Ghosts– and ye, although less successful in doing so- marks the first time where Kanye seems to be making music primarily for himself, a collage of therapeutic portraits designed to guide him hand-in-hand with Cudi on the pursuit of happiness. It’s easy to forget how close we came to losing them both. It’s easy to forget how long and arduous the road ahead remains. It’s easy to forget how much courage it takes, whoever you are, to admit your pain. So thank you, Kids See Ghosts. I’m waiting on the sequel already.