There is nothing surgical about this summer. We’re only a week and a half out from Memorial Day, but the news, from every corner of the culture, is messy, disorienting, unstable. The President of the United States throws reckless words at Canada. A Star Wars movie comes out and lands with a splat. In the final seconds of an NBA Finals game, JR Smith forgets the score and goes tearing the wrong way up the court. In the days ahead, there is a real possibility that Dennis Rodman could emerge as a key figure in international diplomacy. And Kanye West rolls out new albums, week after week, in ways that leave our collective head spinning.
Those of us in the music press have gotten used to album rollouts that proceed with metronomic precision. For a long time, that’s how Kanye West did it, stoking attention expertly, executing one masterful PR stunt after another. But this past Friday, Kids See Ghosts, West’s new collaborative album with Kid Cudi, came out slowly, appearing gradually on one streaming platform after another, its songs mislabeled. We wondered if we were even looking at the final version of the album or whether this was a chaotically in-process document, West fixing each of the seven songs in real time.
As it turns out, though, that may have been the perfect way to begin hearing Kids See Ghosts. To the extent that the album is about anything, it’s about the mess — confusion and anxiety and delusion. Why shouldn’t its release reflect those same feelings? Much like Ye, the solo album that West released a week earlier, Kids See Ghosts is an album about the ways that fame and mental illness can feed into each other, turning into one big self-feeding whirlwind. A few Kanye lines from “Reborn” almost work as a thesis statement for the two albums: “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 / I want all the rain, I want all the pain / I want all the smoke, I want all the blame.”
But unlike Ye, Kids See Ghosts is an album with some grounding, some perspective. For that, we can thank Kid Cudi, who’s been publicly battling his demons for much longer than Kanye West. Cudi’s public profile has been erratic almost since we first met him. He’s launched half-cocked mini-beefs and taken self-destructive career turns. He’s publicly groused about West himself, once his benefactor, causing a breaking-down West to tell a Tampa crowd, “I’m so hurt. I feel so disrespected.” In the years that West and Cudi have known each other, Cudi has used his influence to push West further out into the ether. (Cudi only appeared on one track from West’s 808s & Heartbreak, but he seemed to be something like a spirit animal for the whole project.) And yet the Cudi of 2018 seems to help balance West, to keep him focused on processing whatever he’s got going on in his own mind.
Throughout Kids See Ghosts, Cudi speaks in self-improvement aphorisms. On “Fire,” Cudi uses the bluesy croak in his voice to its maximum effect: “It’s so many days I prayed to God / All this pain, I couldn’t seem to find a way.” (The song sounds a lot like Kanye’s “Black Skinhead,” but Cudi’s actually rapping over the martial lockstep drums from Napoleon XIV’s “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!,” a 1966 novelty hit about being institutionalized.) Later, Cudi sings about spiraling, about coming close to losing everything: “Such a lost boy, caught up in the darkness I had / What’s the cost, boy? Losing everything that I had.” As the short album fades out, it’s with Cudi howling over a loop of Kurt Cobain’s home-recorded acoustic guitar: “On this road, I find / These scars I’ve left behind / Heaven, lift me up.”
Other than a song or two at a time, I’ve never gotten much out of Cudi. But on Kids See Ghosts, he makes sense. The whole album is pitched to his emotional range, and he radiates the image of being a man on a search for meaning. His delivery always blurs the line between singing and rapping, and there’s an intuitive grace to the way his voice trips across tracks. And West follows his lead. There are a few dumb, clumsy, horny lyrical jokes on Kids See Ghosts — “She seem to make me aways feel like a boss / She said I’m in the wrong hole, I said I’m lost” — but that’s just what happens when he starts to lighten up and enjoy himself. And he’s doing that. Kanye’s rapping on Kids See Ghosts has an effortless lightness that was missing on Ye, and it’s there even when he’s dealing with the heaviest of subjects.
Musically, Kids See Ghosts is just as muddy and aqueous as the minds behind it. West shares his production credits, working with old associates like Mike Dean, Plain Pat, and Dot Da Genius. But the sound palette leans heavily on the stuff that West has been favoring lately: shuffling breakbeats, gooey slabs of psych-rock organ, negative space. The songs don’t have much structure. Voices layer over each other, with unbilled guests like Mos Def and Ty Dolla $ign coming in to deliver a few lines and then dropping out just as suddenly. West does a whole lot of the primal screaming he’s been enjoying lately, and sometimes we get strange little touches like a wave of maniacal laughter between verses. West recently talked about how mad he was that radio stations hadn’t been playing his music, and he reportedly flew some radio programmers out to his Wyoming listening session, but Kids See Ghosts is not the work of a man who’s trying to get his music into heavy rotation. It’s loose and murky and low on hooks. It bleeds.
This embrace of murk and grime and chaos is a new thing for West, who for years was both a populist and a perfectionist, obsessively tweaking every track to allow for maximum reach. His new inward-directed music simply can’t achieve the sweep and majesty of his best music, and so a record like Kids See Ghosts feels like a minor work for reasons that go way beyond its compacted length. Kids See Ghosts won’t be enough for West to escape the shadow of his own recent embrace of Trumpism or of his indefensible TMZ statements. But it shows that he’s trying, and that he’s got a good friend at his side. The album works as a step in the right direction, a welcome sign that West, whatever his demons and bad decisions, is still in control of his gifts.