Two weeks into Kanye West’s “surgical summer”, and we’ve already been gifted with two incredibly-acclaimed, musically-excellent records - Kanye West’s Ye, and Pusha T’s Daytona. Fortunately for fans of the ever-controversial rap icon, Kids See Ghosts, the third release of Kanye’s event, continues in this hot streak. The album, a collaboration between long-time collaborators Kanye West and Kid Cudi, is a carefully-crafted odyssey, taking the listener through a variety of conflicting soundscapes to present the inner workings of its creators’ minds. And it’s utterly fantastic.
From College Dropout’s Chipmunk Soul to Yeezus’ distorted screams and pants, the voice has always been the most essential instrument in Kanye’s repertoire. On Kids See Ghosts, however, Kanye takes this use of the voice one step further, employing a series of bizarre vocal effects and samples to craft the album’s mood. On opener Feel The Love, Kanye does his best machine-gun impersonation, “brrrrrap”ing over the beat to form a vocal drum pattern. It’s bold, but brilliant, giving the track a much-needed spark of energy and rhythm. These types of moment are littered throughout the record: 4th Dimension is interrupted by a bizarre witch cackle, while Freeee’s chorus is sung in a variety of almost parodic tones. Even on the tracks where Kanye avoids such eccentric vocalisations, voice modulation is a key factor in establishing tone; Fire’s braggadocious flow enhances its pounding rhythm, Reborn’s personal approach is reinforced by telephone-crackle vocals, and Kids See Ghosts’ eeriness is heightened by a variety of vocal modulations. This vocal experimentation is both essential and successful, giving every track on Kids See Ghosts a distinct identity and allowing for a 23-minute release to truly feel like an album.
These vocal effects are matched by equally fantastic lyrics. While Kanye is arguably a more varied lyricist across the record, both artists bring their absolute A game. And, much like on Ye, mental health is not fetishized or painted-on – Kids See Ghosts is a beautiful portrayal of recovery. Kanye even returns to his socio-political roots on Cudi Montage, delivering a verse on gun crime that is nothing if not compelling: “When she heard the news it hurt her bone-deep / Caught with the rifle with the long reach / Just another cycle of the lonely.”
That’s to say nothing of the production. The album’s cover, an eccentric, unreal inversion of Kanye’s earlier Graduation, is emblematic of its tone. Across the record, we’re given an eclectic mix of styles (ranging from MOTM-esque dreaminess to a sample of a 1930s Christmas single), all of which are dripped in a form of psychedelic haziness. It’s safe to say there’s not a dull moment.
Building upon the hip-hop giants’ previous milestones, Kids See Ghosts mixes genre, mood, style and voice with effortless success. While collaborations can often inhibit creative vision, it’s clear that Kids See Ghosts has no compromise: the twin minds of Kanye and Cudi are completely aligned, creating a record that stands among both artists’ greatest efforts.
Individual Rating: 5⁄5
Picks: All 7
The Kids See Ghosts album cover is based on a 2001 ukiyo-e woodblock print by Takashi Murakami. This original artwork has a much darker background than the Kids See Ghosts album cover and features a child-like figure sitting atop an eerie, distorted floating version of himself – the image of this contemporary figure drawn in a “Superflat” Japanese anime-manga style seems out of place in the naturalistic, traditionally stylised background. The revised version of the work on the Kids See Ghosts cover maintains many of the key elements from the original, except it has a more colourful palette and features a large wispy floating figure in addition to the creepy floating child. This striking cover sets the tone for Kids See Ghosts: bright, occult, and dualist. The album’s dualism is especially significant – it can be felt in its depiction of an alternate spiritual dimension, its discussion of good and evil, and the psychic energy between Kanye West and Kid Cudi that pulsates throughout the album.
This album truly never misses a beat. Although its runtime is a mere 23 minutes, it’s totally packed with content and absolutely no filler. The first track, Feel The Love, gets the album’s incredible energy going with a catchy vocal melody from Cudi “I can still feel the looooove”, a killer verse from GOOD Music’s Pusha-T, and some off-the-wall Desiigner gunshot jargon from Kanye. These three things instinctively feel like they shouldn’t go together, yet they totally do, and it feels amazing. Fire matches its predecessor in its intensity easily, with a raw, steady beat that provides an opportunity for Kanye and Cudi to lay down some verses, each MC feeding off the other’s energy. 4th Dimension is where the album begins to take a creepier tone, as Kanye masterfully creates a thumping, ominous beat using Louis Prima’s 1936 Christmas jingle What Will Santa Clause Say?
The eerie tone continues with Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2), which sees Kanye and Cudi take turns at singing the victorious yet haunting chorus as they reprise Ghost Town from Kanye’s ye, released just one week earlier. The album becomes a bit quieter and more thoughtful as it starts to wind down, with Cudi shining in Reborn as he talks about overcoming the demons that plagued his mental health. Continuing with the theme of angels and demons, Cudi and Kanye rap about trying to find their angels, both literally as Kanye says he’s a Christian, and figuratively as the pair discuss their struggles and their quest to become better people. The album closes off with the beautiful Cudi Montage, which features a Kurt Cobain riff. Kanye spits one of his best line in years here, as he weighs naïve collectivism against ruthless individualism and he and Cudi pray for salvation through the Holy Ghost.
Individual Rating: 4.5⁄5
Picks: Fire, 4th Dimension, Reborn
The combination of Kanye West and Kid Cudi, much like that of Kanye West and Jay Z, is one so natural that it’s a surprise it took over a decade for the pair to finally unite as a supergroup. Kids See Ghosts, however, is in many ways the antithesis of Ye and Jay’s Watch the Throne. Where Watch the Throne centred itself around large stadium rap anthems, party vibes, and relentless braggadocio, Kids See Ghosts delves into more intimate themes of depression, faith, and even gun violence.
The album kicks off with Kid Cudi’s signature crooning and a slow burning verse from Pusha T on Feel the Love. Kanye West’s appearance on the first track, however, is almost indistinguishable. Ye fires off some rapid fire scatting, mimicking the sound of a machine gun in a way that resembles Big Shaq on steroids. The effect is undeniably energising, though. Fire, meanwhile, showcases Cudi’s penchant for experimental rock influences, being built upon an eerie guitar beat.
4th Dimension reminds us all once more of the sampling genius that is Kanye West, as he skilfully transforms a 1930s Christmas song into a bona fide banger. West and Cudi also grant us the privilege of hearing a sequel to Ye’s Ghost Town in Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2) which, although it doesn’t quite reach the depth and heights of the Kanye original, is definitely a cathartic and emotional track that celebrates the feeling of being defiantly free in the face of mental health struggles.
Reborn is perhaps the closest Cudi has sounded to his late noughties golden age since his debut album. Although lyrically the song doesn’t offer much beyond the constant refrain of “I feel reborn, I’m moving forward”, the intricate and glistening production combined with the genuine sense of emotion from Cudi makes the track into a modern day classic.
The closer, Cudi Montage, uses an obscure Kurt Cobain sample as a backdrop to Kanye and Cudi’s lamentations on both their own struggles and America’s shooting epidemic. As the Kids See Ghosts duo sing with every fibre of their being “lord shine your light on me, save me please” and Mr Hudson chimes in with the persistent mantra of “stay strong”, one feels that these artists have finally come to terms with their personal and societal woes, and have found strength in a higher power.
Kids See Ghosts, perhaps due to its 7 track and 20-something minute running time, might not yet be held up alongside Kanye and Cudi’s best. But this is an album deserving of the highest echelons of praise. This is a tight and impeccably crafted record, drawing inspiration from early Cudi, Kanye’s MBDTF and Yeezus eras, and a sprinkling of 90s alt rock, and the result is certainly outstanding.
Individual Rating: 5/5
Picks: Feel the Love, 4th Dimension, Reborn, Cudi Montage