Scott Mescudi – aka Kid ‘no one ever looked better in a crop top’ Cudi – and Kanye West’s collaborative seven track album, KIDS SEE GHOSTS, is the third West-led G.O.O.D. Music release in as many weeks – chasing Kanye’s own project ye and Pusha T’s DAYTONA. The record is the culmination of Cudi and Kanye’s tumultuous, decade-long professional relationship, which began in 2008 with Cudi signing to G.O.O.D Music, birthed extensive collaborations (including on West’s Autotune opus 808s & Heartbreak), survived all out rap Twitter beefing, and finally resulted in the long awaited first full-length project between the duo. Stacked up against the label’s aforementioned recent releases, KIDS SEE GHOSTS is everything ye isn’t: compelling, concise; and everything DAYTONA is: an instant classic.
KIDS SEE GHOSTS brings out the best in its chief collaborators. Over his last three full-length releases (away from the G.O.O.D. Music umbrella), Cudi has delivered muddled and over-inflated results. To date, brevity hasn’t been Cudi’s strong point, with previous projects like the mammoth double album Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven incorporating 26 tracks and spanning an hour and a half. In contrast, the restrained seven tracks on KIDS SEE GHOSTS clock in at under 25 minutes, giving Cudi little room to misstep and fueling the album’s immaculate feel. On KIDS SEE GHOSTS, Cudi is reborn. It’s as if the streamlined foundation Kanye’s provided him here has given him fresh confidence and a platform to shine. The result is Cudi sounding the most empowered you’ve ever heard him.
The most satisfying moment on the record arrives on “Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2)”; there’s an unadulterated euphoria in hearing Cudi and Kanye shed their demons and address their mental health struggles. It’s genuinely uplifting to hear Kanye yell, “I don’t feel pain anymore / Guess what babe? I feel freeee,” and Cudi chant, “I’m so reborn I’m moving forward,” on the equally-liberating “Reborn”. There’s a reason that “Reborn” is the album’s longest track; it’s an anthemic standout about healing and coming through dark times, the times where you’re entirely without hope that end with stepping into the light and taking a deep motherfucking breath.
It’s a special feeling to hear Cudi sounding so far away from the low of his confessional 2016 Facebook post, in which he shared his personal battle with depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, before checking himself into rehab. Cudi’s emotional openness has rightly made him an icon. Addressing the stigma and shame attached to mental health struggles head on, both he and Kanye are part of a moment that’s changing the narrative about mental health and, beyond that, their presence as black men openly talking about and sharing their emotions is invaluable on a Moonlight-level. It’s become part of the reason that Cudi is so influential – reaching near godfather status, idolized by a generation of hip-hop makers and listeners. Whether it’s Travis Scott telling Beats 1, “He created a world for kids like me, who wasn’t just like, the ultimate like drug dealer… Not everyone is as real as their music is. That artist comes once every decade,” or Logic saying, “He was the dude that was like, ‘It’s OK to be sad, it’s OK to talk about these things and go through these things.'”
In the past, Cudi has been shot down for his often lackluster lyricism, but here lines like, “Easy then to feel worthless, but peace is something that starts with me,” come with the weight of real-deal human experience. There are many simplistic platitudes, “Stay strong,” “I can still feel the love,” etc., but while these lines might be simple in execution, the sentiments they reflect are anything but. He has never been the greatest rapper of all time; his career is built on his brand of openness and his gift for melody (see the melancholy soul he brought to a third of 808s & Heartbreak). The problem in the past was that this was squandered and spread too thin across overly-long albums. Even though there are moments worth revisiting on his rock/grunge album Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven and detour side project WZRD, KIDS SEE GHOSTS might be the first Cudi album entirely free from bullshit lyrics and unnecessary sonic flourishes, and they’re an example of how little Cudi needs to contribute to a track to make his mark with maximum impact.
The criticisms of KIDS SEE GHOSTS are minimal. “Feel The Love”, for instance, could do without the macho bravado and self-aggrandizing. That said, hip-hop is a sport, so it figures that its main players would cultivate an obsession with winning and being the best. At least it comes with some kind of positive and reflective spin, because, in places, it’s an album that not only boasts that its makers are kings in their chosen arena, but also addresses the mental health impacts, the responsibility, and the strength it takes to wear the crown.
West’s production throughout the record is nothing short of mind-bending. From the insane magic of “Feel the Love”’s rowdy “gahgah brrapdadadat” backing to Kurt Cobain’s clanging “Burn the Rain” guitar sample (from the Montage of Heck companion album) on “Cudi Montage” to the staggering beauty of the organ that comes in at the end of “Reborn”. It’s a truly psychedelic production that’s consumed with atmosphere – something that’s fully embodied on the album’s title track, which comes off as less of a track and more of a mood (one that’s perfectly reflected in Takashi Murakami’s cover art). Here’s hoping one day Kanye applies these skills to scoring a movie.
West’s rap game is also more focused and nuanced here than on ye. Yes, there are still hollow moments, but Kanye lands his punches with absolute conviction on lines like, “I was off the chain, I was often drained, 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, I want all the smoke, I want all the shame,” from “Reborn”. Likewise, the album’s featured artists – Pusha-T and Yasiin Bey – bring their A-game to a project where their presence could have easily been overkill. In contrast to the erratic ye, it feels like Kanye has poured so much more love and attention into KIDS SEE GHOSTS on every level. It’s a stretch to imagine anyone returning to tracks from ye in five years’ time, whereas this feels like it is and will remain essential listening.
Kanye’s crowning achievement and his real genius on KIDS SEE GHOSTS is the way the project facilitates and creates a space for Cudi, his “favorite living artist,” to be his best self – the truest example of brotherly love you’ll ever see. Despite being a collaborative project, KIDS SEE GHOSTS feels very much like it was built around Cudi (it’s almost a love letter), and maybe this is why he not only returns to but excels over his former Man on the Moon glory. The result is an album instilled with defiant hope, a light in the darkness; like the moon in the night sky.