Kids See Ghosts: A Track-By-Track Review

For those who are long-time followers of my website, you may be surprised to see that I haven’t updated it with a post about my upcoming book. I’ve taken some time off from Melee writing to pursue my love for music. However, the new Kanye West-Kid Cudi collaboration finally lit the spark inside me to write about music.

I won’t beat around the bush – “Kids See Ghosts,” the self-titled debut of the new Kanye West-Kid Cudi collaboration, is the best release from either artist in years. It’s probably my favorite hip hop album in recent memory.

The stunning return to form is remarkable for West, but it’s even more so for Cudi. If you don’t believe me, listen to the 2015 Cudi release, “Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven,” an album so bad, it garnered a rare zero rating from music critic Anthony Fantano.

That said, let’s take a look, track-by-track, at “Kids See Ghosts.”

Feel The Love

“Feel The Love” starts off with a simple bassline and a gospel-like hook by Kid Cudi ( “I can still feel the love”) before Pusha T drops a badass, braggadocio, intro verse to the album. In standard Pusha fashion, he talks about his fame and history of dealing drugs, but he also sneaks in a clever Eazy-E reference. Not exactly anything jaw-breaking, but if you like Pusha, you’ll dig this verse.

When Pusha finishes a line with the words, “trap music,” that’s when the real meat of the song kicks in. West starts doing this onomatopoeia bit, but it’s not eye roll-worthy like “Lift Yourself,” a West single released earlier in the year. It’s far more aggressive, sounding like mimicked gun noises and now backed up by forceful, loud, adrenaline-pumping drums.

With Cudi’s soulful vocals, these elements create a larger-than-life starpower reminiscent of songs from 2010 West classic “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” All the emotions “Feel The Love” evokes from you are that level of magnified, but you only get less than three minutes before the album takes you to its next destination.

Fire

“Fire” is shorter in length, but it isn’t as in-your-face as “Feel The Love.” There’s marching band-esque vibes, with a 1966 sample of Jerry Samuels’ “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa.” It’s an artistically fitting choice because Samuels’ song reflects  an individual’s struggle with mental health, a prominent theme over this stage of West’s and Cudi’s careers.

Along with a twangy guitar lick in the back comes a flute-like melody between West and Cudi’s contemplative lines, which detail their status, but also their failures. Both sound like they have been beaten down over the last few years – and they have been – but they’re trying their best to stand up again.

Suddenly, “Fire” transitions to a seemingly out-of-nowhere Louis Prima sample.

4th Dimension

It’s not every day that you get to hear a 1930s Christmas song used in a hip hop song, but somehow West and Cudi use one to make an absolutely killer track. As soon as I heard the drop, I immediately thought to myself, “oh shit.”

“4th Dimension” has shades of the 2013 West classic, “Black Skinhead,” but it’s even more menacing. West’s lines in this song are so ridiculous they make you laugh (“It feels so good, it should cost/Bought her alligator, I ain’t talkin’ Lacoste”) and have overt sexual imagery (“She seem to make me always feel like a boss/She said I’m in the wrong hole, I said I’m lost”). This is the trademark West we know, hate and love.

Following West’s grand entry, the background transitions into this strange, horrifying, psychedelic laughing track, with the heartbeat-like bass still pushing the song onward. Cudi’s verse follows, but the subject material is far darker than the lines of excess we heard before. Cudi talks about sin and losing everything he had for fame. He even reflects on his drug abuse, along with his depression, creating a stark, but intentional juxtaposition with West.

Clocking in once again at just under three minutes, “4th Dimension” has a strange ending: a Shirley Ann Lee line from her song, “Someday,” which is also sampled in “Ghost Town,” from West’s previous 2018 album “Ye.” This segues into the most memorable song on “Kids See Ghosts.”

Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2)

After a brief build up, “Freeee” starts with heavy guitar chords, a hard-hitting drum track and a recorded Marcus Garvey excerpt, in which the famous Pan-Africanist leader asks his listeners to acquire an understanding of themselves. Already, you know you’re in for a listening experience unlike any other.

“I don’t feel pain any more,” West calls out, as if he’s simultaneously in the heavens, but staring down into hell. He continues with a “I feel free,” with emphasis, distortion and a stretched out echo on the last word, eliciting both nightmarish dread and divine euphoria to the listener.

The song continues with similar vocals from Ty Dolla $ign and Cudi. There’s even a brief interlude, in which the percussion completely stops, but a few heavy synth chords match melodic and angelic vocals of “I feel free,” parallel to the all-encompassing, lower-pitched, and demonic sounds from before.

I could write an essay about this song, but no words can do it justice. If there’s one track from “Kids See Ghosts” to listen to, it’s this one.

Reborn

It’s hard to follow the dynamic “Freeee,” but Cudi and West somehow manage to do it with an uplifting, static, but motivational track in “Reborn.” It focuses on the idea of rebirth through adversity, learning from your mistakes and moving forward, as Cudi sings in the chorus (“I’m so, I’m so reborn/I’m moving forward”).

The drums stay as prominent as ever, though they’re subdued, slower, yet still impactful. Similarly, a simple piano line replaces the tantalizing guitars from before.

Cudi and West have especially poignant verses. West (“I was off the meds, I was called insane/What an awesome thing, engulfed in shame”) captures his public struggle with bipolar disorder, while Cudi offers an uplifting resolution to his existential crisis (“At times, wonder my purpose/Easy then to feel worthless/But, peace is something that starts with me”).

Kids See Ghosts

Like “Reborn,” the self-titled track is mostly static, but it’s no breather. Instead, the percussion drives the pulse of the song forward, as if it’s running into a great void.

Mos Def guest stars in a hushed chorus with a repetitive emphasis on the phrase, “kids see ghosts sometimes.” Reportedly, the inspiration for the title came from how children can see, both literally and figuratively, what adults can’t. Both West and Cudi are still dealing with the ramifications behind their respective parent’s deaths, so the name is somewhat fitting.

Cudi’s first verse is a calm, soothing, but still haunting self-reflection. In direct contrast to his optimism from the previous track, he ends his “Kids See Ghosts” verse in ominous, chilling fashion (“I guessing I’m just sick of running/All this time searching hard for something/I can hear the angels coming”). At least in how I interpreted the line, it felt like a callback to 2016, when Cudi checked himself into rehab for suicidal urges.

West then delivers a fast-paced stream of consciousness that’s more in line with the track’s speed, but detached from its emotional resonance. He mentions the time he took to make music (“Well it took me long enough to rap on this strong enough”), reconciles his faith with his actions (“Constantly repenting cause yes, I never listen”) and briefly shills for his own fashion and art sense. Honestly, it’s all over the place; I’m not sure how it fits into the rest of the song, even as a point of comparison, but it’s also Kanye West, so one of these is expected per album.

Cudi Montage

The album’s conclusion begins with an affecting loop of “Burn in the Rain,” a posthumous Kurt Cobain recording released after artist Cobain’s death. Notoriously, the grunge star committed suicide at the peak of his career, making Cudi and West’s use of the sample even more powerful, or at least infinitely better than Cudi’s poor attempt at a Cobain imitation across much of “Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven.”

Following a few opening lines by Cudi, West once again delivers bars that are among the best of his career. It’s not a personal verse though – it’s more like “College Dropout” era Kanye, as he references gang violence, the desire for revenge, the institutional systems that lead them to it and pain caused from all three areas (“All growing up in environment/Where doin’ crime the requirement/They send us off to prison for retirement”). While it’s not thematically consistent with the personal narratives of the album, it’s still among my favorite moments of the album, as it shows West can still offer valuable social insight.

At just over 23 minutes, “Kids See Ghosts” is a brilliant, heart breaking, but inspirational experience. It showcases Cudi and West confronting their flaws in a unique and unforgettable manner, bringing out their greatest strengths. After having heard it for about a week straight, I’m still floored at its sheer cohesiveness and artistic value; I can’t stop listening to it.

It’s a tough time to be a West fan. His music stayed strong, but relatively underwhelming for his standards since 2010. Moreover, between openly supporting Donald Trump and making poorly thought out statements about slavery, his public antics made many question their fandom. I would have liked to see West take back his previous statements, or at least take direct ownership of them and closely examine why many of his fans felt betrayed.

Then again, whether or not he’s obligated to explain his beliefs, maybe he’s already done it. On “Wouldn’t Leave,” a “Ye” song dedicated to how his flair for needless controversy caused conflict in his family, he at least made a self-aware effort to address his penchant for saying, frankly, stupid shit (“I said ‘slavery a choice’ – they said ‘how, Ye?’ / Just imagine if they caught me on a wild day”). I’m not impressed by it, but perhaps others are.

I also can’t repeat enough that at least “Yeezus,” “The Life of Pablo” and “Ye” were still acceptable releases for West fans. Cudi’s “Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven” sincerely made me think that Cudi lost his mind. This is the third time I’ve mentioned this album, but it’s that mindbogglingly terrible, to the point to where Cudi’s 2016 subsequent release, the forgettable “Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’,” doesn’t even register in my mind as a Cudi album. As far as I could have previously told, the artist was dead.

Ever hear the cliche, “don’t call it a comeback?” I’m calling “Kids See Ghosts” a comeback.

It’s the clear frontrunner for best hip hop album of the year and I can’t wait to see what West, Cudi or both have in store next.

9/10

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