Historically, hip-hop has thrived on duos. We witnessed the magic that manifested in the careers of groups like OutKast and UGK. But not all pairings were heaven sent. We have the newly-ended saga between Birdman and Lil Wayne as proof of that. The trouble with duos is that beyond the immense amount of talent, we’re left observing the growing pains between the two, magnified by fame’s grip. A decade ago, we were introduced to another duo on 808s & Heartbreak. It was billed as Kanye West’s fourth studio album, but the melancholy soul behind a third of the tracklist was credited to Kid Cudi. Today, that duo officially releases their first ever joint project under the name KIDS SEE GHOSTS. In order to see how we got here, let’s rewind.
Kanye wasn’t the same on 808s & Heartbreak. Life had hardened him. News of Donda West’s death and a broken engagement came within five months of each other. His mother’s death from elective plastic surgery fueled his complicated relationship with fame, one that he still seems to be grappling with. Immediately, 808s was intergalactic. It replaced rich soul samples for heavy drum machines and synths. Kanye’s voice was different here, too. It was somber, emotive, and soaked in AutoTune. The album was a break from the hyper-masculinity safeguarded by hip-hop, solidifying it as one of the most transformative albums of the past decade. With a handful of co-writers per song, Kanye worked through his feelings of loss. Disappointment filtered through “Say You Will,” an opener fed up with broken promises. It’s a theme that would be a thread for the rest of the album, as Cudi tailored it to fit his sound. “Chased the good life my whole life long / look back on my life and my life gone,” he cooed on a Cudi-assisted “Welcome to Heartbreak.” Together they’d push through the anguish of empty relationships on “Heartless,” “RoboCop,” and “Paranoid.” It was a stark contrast from the warm shutter-shade persona Kanye projected on Graduation. 808s was cold. 808s was a break up. And like breakups in real life, what Cudi and Kanye rebuilt in purgatory would form an evolved version of themselves that would change music for the next ten years.
The unavoidable truth is, much of 808s wasn’t exactly new. If you were paying attention, you’d heard a variation of this sound on A Kid Named Cudi, released a few months prior to their union. The album would not exist without the template A Kid Named Cudi provided. Over the last ten years their brotherhood has been tested publicly with rifts and mental breakdowns. Since 808s, there hasn’t been a Kanye album Cudi hasn’t collaborated on. With the arrival of KIDS SEE GHOSTS, rap fans are curious: are they capable of creating another album as forward thinking as 808s?
There’s a lot riding on KIDS SEE GHOSTS. Not only is it a reunion of sorts for Kid Cudi and Kanye, but it’s the third installment of an extravagant, yet exhausting G.O.O.D Music rollout. The seven songs could easily fit as the soundtrack to a haunted house as ghastly giggles float over the rapper’s vocals. For the first time in their history, it feels like there’s a mutual respect for each other’s artistry. Cudi looked up to ‘Ye the way ‘Ye looked up to Jay. Kanye experienced little brother syndrome firsthand in his rocky relationship with JAY-Z, and whether it was intentional or not projected that onto his mentorship with Cudi. With the exception of a Kanye-produced Man on the Moon, their collaborations have often had Kanye helmed as the lead on tracks like “Gorgeous,” “Guilt Trip,” and “Waves,” leaving Cudi in a supporting role. On KIDS SEE GHOSTS, Kanye is rapping better than he did on ye, while still feeling entirely supplementary to the project. Although it’s marketed as a joint venture, this feels like a Kid Cudi album, with a few Kanye cameos. If the album is indicative of anything, it’s that maybe Kanye’s ego is shrinking, as this rollout feels like a grand attempt of finally putting his artists first. Instead of Cudi feeling like an ornament to their work together, KIDS SEE GHOSTS feels like the spotlight is on him and for good reason.
It’s been a wild ride for anyone who has been following their friendship over the last decade. After collaborating on each other’s projects for the better part of five years, Cudi’s departure from G.O.O.D Music in 2013 was the signifier that their sibling-like rivalry had reached a boiling point. Two years ago, Cudi called out the “greats” alleging that your favorite rapper (read: Drake and Kanye) probably has “30 people writing for them.” A week later, Kanye replied in an infamous rant at a Tampa concert: “I birthed you.” It was a strange sentiment for ‘Ye to share in front of a crowd of thousands of concert-goers, considering Cudi’s heavy hand on Kanye’s last five albums. But if Yeezy taught us anything, it’s that he is no stranger to absurdities. He became a hypebeast for the MAGA hat, while spewing the rhetoric that slavery was a choice in the rollout for his new album, ye. Kanye scribbled “I hate being bipolar, it’s awesome” on ye’s cover, calling his diagnosis a “superpower, not a disability,” on “Yikes .” Framing it as such seems like a step into liberation—a step fans hadn’t exactly been able to see Cudi exercise in his own struggles with depression and anxiety. Months before the release of his 2016 album, Passion, Pain, & Demon Slayin’, Cudi penned an emotional letter on Facebook about how crippling his anxiety had become, which triggered suicidal urges. He left, promising fans he’d be back “stronger, better, and reborn.” It was extremely transparent, even if he’d been dropping hints from the time we’d met him.
In 2008, A Kid Named Cudi introduced the world to a lanky 24-year-old from Cleveland. He didn’t have the brawn or street cred rappers like 50 Cent or Lil Wayne possessed in the early aughts. This was the opposite of the braggadocious version of hip-hop we’d grown accustomed to, and a kid from Ohio was creating his own strain of it. He was a self-proclaimed lonely stoner, clinging to aliases like Mr. Solo Dolo on “Day ‘N’ Nite.” Tracks like the anthemic “Man on the Moon,” provided a glimpse of his depression, a topic of taboo in hip-hop’s lyricism. He even distanced himself from aspects of misogyny. He didn’t just want to smash, he wanted “Pillow Talk.” Cudi exposed his demons on Man on the Moon and beyond, creating a lane of “sad boy” rap that would explode in the careers of a very early Drake, Travis Scott, and Lil Uzi Vert. His influence is often overlooked, but those who are privy to his footprint in music just want to know if the clarity he’s been seeking is found on KIDS SEE GHOSTS.
Cudi doesn’t leave you time to wonder how he’s been, he reveals it all on the opening line. “I can still feel the love,” he shouts. It’s a hell of a re-introduction for a man who hasn’t released a project on G.O.O.D Music in five years. “4th Dimension,” is an interesting choice as an opener as PUSHA-T commands your attention in the first verse. It could be a strategic move to have the man who engineered the juiciest rap battle in recent memory against Drake, a common enemy, on your side. But Cudi seems too at peace to even want to revel in an argument he has no stake in. He brings back his immaculate hums on the title track, referencing the days he prayed his pain away.
But songs like “Freeee,” and “Feel the Love” are clear indicators that Cudi has found what he’s looking for. “I don’t feel pain anymore / Guess what babe? I feel free.” It’s the sigh of relief his fans had been waiting for, as he makes mention of feeling reborn, a full circle moment from his Facebook letter. Kanye is more transparent on the album also, sharing lines about his opioid addiction in “Feel the Love.” But, did Kanye and Cudi do it again? As a joint album, it doesn’t evoke the same feeling as Watch the Throne. Kanye’s presence does little to forgive a lackluster week-old project or his antics. But for the guy from Cleveland, KIDS SEE GHOSTS works as a second coming of Cudi, and rightfully so. His lyrics come in the form of mantras, like when he sings “Peace is something that starts with me.” In 23 minutes, Cudi and Kanye have buried their demons and are, as they put it, moving forward.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.