G.O.O.D. Music

“Me and Cudi are the originators of the style, kinda like what Alexander McQueen is to fashion,” Kanye West said back in 2009.

Kanye, never one to mince words, was referencing the product and influence of he and Kid Cudi’s first collaboration: 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak. It’s Kanye’s album, of course, but Kid Cudi’s melancholic, experimental touch is evident, from “Welcome to Heartbreak” on. It was an ambitious turn for Kanye and the springboard for Cudi’s career, leaving fans most receptive to their alliance yearning for an official joint project. A decade later—after a musical breakup, a reunion, more conflict, and more resolution—Kanye and Cudi have delivered. But Kids See Ghosts, the third release of Kanye’s slated G.O.O.D. Music takeover/monthlong birthday celebration, could not have arrived at a more bizarre time.

Cudi has become a cult hero; Kanye, on the other hand, a cult leader. Kids See Ghosts, like Pusha-T’s Daytona and Kanye’s messy Ye, was created in the isolated Project: Wyoming atmosphere. Although Pusha described the vibe as a “rehab” setting, it reads like the type of environment where no one present was likely to challenge Kanye’s ridiculousness—primarily his praise of Donald Trump, treating a Make America Great Again hat like merch (and not the White supremacist dog whistle that it is) and suggestion that slavery involved conscious volition. Ye’s messiness shows that Kanye needs a person or a task to reel him—musically and otherwise. A clear goal and defined role prevent his persona non grata status from sinking Kids See Ghosts. Cudi carries the album, while Kanye, in the right moments, shows that he’s better off filling the architect role almost exclusively at this stage of his career.

Kanye and Cudi tend to struggle when unfocused. The Life of Pablo, bloated to 20 tracks, proved Kanye would benefit from a project manager. He’d blow up a building simply to make a chair. Cudi falters when he leans too far into his alt-rock ambitions (see: his 2015 album Speeding Bullet 2 Heaven). But Kanye and Cudi's relationship is no longer that of mentor and protégé, so on Kids See Ghosts, they give each other something both have recently needed: parameters. The balanced chaos of “Freeee (Ghost Town, Pt. 2),” powered by explosions of percussion and guitar, features a well-orchestrated three-man-weave between Kanye, Cudi and Ty Dolla $ign. None of the parties involved dominate the song, and Kanye and Cudi champion the freedom they’ve gained by shaking off criticism. However, we know the freedom Kanye desires is liberation from criticism that is often justified.

The Marcus Garvey speech used as the song’s intro addresses knowledge of self. Its inclusion suggests Kanye and Cudi feel liberated by accepting their flaws. While this doesn’t exactly signal growth, the calm “Reborn,” which immediately follows, touches on the matter. In it, the duo expresses feelings of renewal following their respective low points. Cudi’s been open about his mental health struggles throughout his career, and his trademark humming at the song’s onset radiate with positive energy. “Peace is something that starts with me,” he sings during his verse. Meanwhile, Kanye alludes to the bipolar disorder he addressed on Ye and although he insists he wants “all the smoke...all the blame,” only time will reveal if a 41-year-old who’s still a self-proclaimed “grown-ass kid” is actually capable of change.

The album's title track references the supernatural phenomenon of children seeing and feeling what adults are unable to. And in the context of Kids See Ghosts, as with any Kanye West-adjacent project, youthful energy is the driving force. Guest Yasiin Bey takes command of the song’s creeping bassline during the bridge, reciting a brief mission statement: “Civilization without society/Power and wealth with nobility/Stability without stasis.” The latter is precisely what Kanye and Cudi strive for, the goal at the end of their pursuit of happiness motivated by a permanent sense of youth. The song also completes Kids See Ghosts' strongest sequence.

Bey, along with Ty Dolla $ign and an uncredited Pusha-T, form a strong supporting cast that aids the Kids See Ghosts narrative. Kurt Cobain, whose influence on Cudi is well-documented, appears from beyond the grave via a dirty guitar riff sample on “Cudi Montage,” a nod to Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. What’s more, the album is aided by the brevity that served Daytona quite well, but rendered Ye an obviously rushed series of unfinished thoughts. That said, it’s certainly not without flaws. “Feel the Love” could’ve done without Kanye’s aggressive scatting. Meanwhile, his regression as a rapper continues, becoming more glaring with each verse. He and Cudi pull equal weight on Kids See Ghosts, but the album’s brightest points—the beautiful madness they seek—come from the moments when Kanye plays the background and Cudi seizes the forefront. It’s a testament to their chemistry and quite the turn from 2008. —Julian Kimble

Here Are the Best Projects Released From 104 Past and Present XXL Freshmen