This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Kids See Ghosts – S/T
Genre: Alternative Hip Hop
Favorite Tracks: “Fire,” “Kids See Ghosts,” “Cudi Montage”
“Kid Cudi, Prodigal Son Returns Home.” Like a war-torn hero finally touching down on home soil for the first time, that’s how the headline surrounding KIDS SEE GHOSTS was supposed to read, a mid-career turn back towards GOOD Music and the producer who discovered him, Kanye West. That’s what I wanted.
It’s a good narrative—one that Twitter and Cudi fans at large were quick to focus on during the days before and after the release of the seven-song collaborative project. Somehow Cudi, in spite of a decade that has frequently seen him release some of the worst albums or projects of any given year, has become a kind of pseudo-internet sadboy, a precursor to the crushing emo rap of the current SoundCloud era, and a face of agony and pain. 10 years removed from the mixtape that introduced the world (and Kanye) to Cudi, and eight years removed from the only legitimately good album he has, MAN ON THE MOON II: THE LEGEND OF MR. RAGER, a kind of mythos that Cudi is greater than he actually is has been developed. Never mind that MAN ON THE MOON: THE END OF DAY was a messy and confusing debut with some killer singles; those singles have lived in perpetuity with fans that largely ignore the wildly bad follow-up albums and bizarre forays into the worlds of psych and alternative rock.
Those obsessions with rock stardom and genre bending have always been Cudi’s largest downfall. It led to a fun but decidedly out-of-place single in “Erase Me,” created a bland surrealness on WZRD, largely informed some of INDICUD’s weakest moments, and was responsible for whatever the fuck SPEEDIN’ BULLET 2 HEAVEN was. With KIDS SEE GHOSTS, Kanye seems to understand Cudi’s obsession and, rather than sidestep those interests, he levels into them with samples of Kurt Cobain, production from WZRD collaborator Dot Da Genius, and flourishes of grounding psych burst-outs and zoned-out guitar. If KIDS SEE GHOSTS succeeds, it’s because it looks and sounds like MAN ON MOON-era Kid Cudi at times—particularly the five-minute crying space odyssey “Reborn”—and that’s all fans of Cudi seem to want from him.
I’ll walk back that last statement: KIDS SEE GHOSTS is PROBABLY what fans wanted from Cudi all along, even if their commitment to hold him in such esteemed light has lingered far longer than their actual support likely has. But this is what they’ve likely been waiting for and their prayers have been answered: KIDS SEE GHOSTS is a brief but sonically diverse collection, a soaring freefall that occasionally mixes psychedelic guitar noodling with Cudi’s crooning and serviceable sadboy bars.
If that’s what fans have wanted from Cudi all this time, it took Kanye’s own rockstar obsessions to make it palatable again. Here, Cudder is doing what he did when we met him way back on A KID NAMED CUDI, channeling primitive, emotional singing and tense rapping over stutter-step beats and starry. guitar-centric samples. Kanye loves this side of Cudi—it’s what he was drawn to in the first place. But for the last several years, Cudi’s Swiss Army knife skills have been diluted in Ye’s solo work with songs like “All of the Lights,” “Guilt Trip,” and “Waves,” each of which saw him reduced down to a humming backing track or a singular vocal kick. With KIDS SEE GHOSTS, Kanye mostly avoids turning Cudi into an aesthetic, although we get flashes of it on opener “Feel The Love,” a mostly braggadocious victory lap for Pusha-T before Cudi’s singular howls of “I can still feel the love” actually usher in the album.
Generally speaking though, if the things that drew Kanye to Cudi are things that also drew fans to Cudi, this project succeeds. It’s, in many ways, the best version of that thing. The album is brief, it’s colorful, if not disjointed (not unlike the first MAN ON THE MOON), in ways that are striking given its seven-song length, and every track has emboldened and interesting moments. Kanye’s rapping is poised enough, both in technical prowess and in lyrical content, to not distract or diminish (although “Got a Bible by my bed, oh yes, I’m very Christian / Constantly repentin’, ’cause, yes, I never listen” is grossly tone deaf). Cudi’s warming presence fuels the wild-eyed “Fire” and the closing prayer “Cudi Montage,” and the record’s vintage throwback “Reborn” could be an outtake from any of his heyday projects. On what is technically a collaborative project, Cudi constantly emerges as the focal point of these songs, a testament to his own vocal abilities and to Kanye’s knowing production work.
And Kanye’s beats here are, just as they’ve been across this Wyoming run, fascinating, and on KIDS SEE GHOSTS in particular they’re a sonic feast of different textures that work to varying degrees of success. The chain-dragging howl of “Fire,” the jungle prowl darkness of “Kids See Ghosts,” and that plodding Cobain guitar sample on “Cudi Montage” are all perfect, and Cudi makes the most of them. But the Louis Prima-assisted “4th Dimension” feels hollow, with vocal cackles and screams that never quite match either rapper’s energy, and “Reborn” is such a perfect imitation of Cudi’s earlier work that it almost feels awkward amidst the more challenging and, quite frankly, interesting production. But these are, by and large, full-sounding rock star beats for a rapper who once dressed as Jimi Hendrix for one of his videos.
But apropos of nothing, by the end of KIDS SEE GHOSTS I didn’t find myself hyped on the clear craftsmanship of it all, or smiling for Cudi’s first genuinely good album in years. Instead I was wondering what I actually want from Kid Cudi. The album perfectly explore sounds he’s been trying to get at for a decade, a short-yet-sprawling 23-minute record that has all of his interests, strengths, motivations, and, yes, flaws, and somehow I still found myself shrugging—even if it’s not a perfect album (and its not by any stretch), it’s clearly something of quality. And after subsequent listens, it’s clear that KIDS SEE GHOSTS is a good album, and Cudi fans will feel seen and validated, but for the first time since MAN ON THE MOON II, I continually found myself kind of apathetic to the whole thing. What did I even want from this record in the first place and, to a larger point, what do I want from Cudi in general, because if it isn’t this, what is it?