Kids See Ghosts (2018)
Kids See Ghosts
GOOD Music | Def Jam
At a glance the middle act of Lemonade to ye‘s wounded first and tender last, its battle drums, guitars, and dry late sixties textures expressing timeless its desire to be cleansed on one listen, and to demonstrate its rebirth on another. A work fluctuating (internally, as well as in the listener’s day-to-day life) between fiery assertion and lacerated appeal. This might hold in a sense, and unlike the photographic ye, Kids See Ghosts contains both minute joys and a host of durable frameworks for said joys, poignant discursions, and circular questioning. It is, in effect, a hugely successful jam session by two artists who brought shambling with them everything they ever were and wanted to be.
Their own sense of excitement at seeing it come together is infectious. We’re caught off guard when ever consummate Pusha T introduces the record, but understand intuitively that it’s Cudi moaning from somewhere above and Ye screaming along to his own drums below that is Kids See Ghosts‘ statement of intent. He leaves us with this bizarre and volatile duo and locks the door, hoping things will go well. They do. Kanye quickly reasserts his role as beatmaker on his own terms, standing back from the drums with a huge grin and seeing what colours he can throw around. Vietnam War era Fire shepherds a bummer with its playstation flutes, 4th Dimension spins Christmas backwards into a rubber hose spiritual being performed on a fictional island in Scooby Doo (the Wicked Witch of the West is also there), and Marcus Garvey watches as Ye and guests destroy themselves just to know themselves. Kanye’s an intoxicated hack magician skipping around the junkyard and freaking out that there’s now magic shooting from his palms, but also thinking Let’s see how far this goes. He plays the part perfectly, but once he gets everything he needs from it on Freeee, he moves on.
Although Cudi’s distinctive contribution to ye‘s Ghost Town met broad criticism, Kanye evidently believes wholeheartedly in the man’s blurry monotone and the clarity of his lyrics. Peace is something that starts with me isn’t much on paper but when Cudi sings it it might well be Shakespeare, and by the time it’s God, shine your love on me, save me, please, the record slows and the temperature drops even as the drums keep going. The record’s rise in intensity is inversely proportional to its musical aggression- ultimately Kanye turns Cudi’s voice into a disembodied instrument for repetition, with the beats as their guide. Altering the music-making relationship in this way might initially seem like the producer asserting dominance, but here it’s for neither Ye nor Cudi specifically but in service of a kind of meditative space where everything becomes clear at once. Its pain, its desire, and its furious belief in rebirth (in second chances), all become unavoidable, repeated so as to slow the heart instead of racing it through big purgative moments.
Cudi is still best as an instrument, and as an instrument here he weeps, mourns, and pleads in a way that a vocalist would smother. Kids See Ghosts has him as a kind of reluctant protagonist who has less to do in the space than whoever he’s with, but who with effortless sadness makes it known that we’re seeing and feeling this all through him. He’s both more exposed and more preoccupied than his shape-shifting foil, waiting politely for his guardian angel. That’s the relationship: Kanye the magician summons environments for Cudi, gets his best angles, pokes and bandages his wounds, and changes costume so much that it becomes a game trying to see what he does next. On Cudi Montage he even reminds us that he can rap outside himself for a tearjerk verse so unimpeded by formal experiments and satirical barbs that the both sides lose somebody outro could believably have been co-authored by Lil B. It is of course the best song on the album alongside Reborn which thanks to Cudi’s gorgeous sustained ugliness could repeat itself another ten times and get better. Ye and Cudi both seem surprised by the fact that it all goes so well, and they appear revitalised, making Kids See Ghosts feel like a fleeting transitional thing.
This is not to undermine its power- it is a strange release full of mysteries and unconscious gambles, its questioning and moments of affirmation, confident and not, strike in ways that make more conscientious poets appear ineffectual. It’s earthbound even as it aspires to the cosmic, painted and glued together from shaky pasts and imagined futures. The nature of works such as these is that they are born of turbulence, and it is up to the listener to find and hold onto the moments that make sense to us, that mean something to us, and it is incredibly touching to know that the junkyard kaleidoscope Kids See Ghosts will forever be that fiery lacerated moment for so many.