Christian scripture teaches that on the seventh day, God looked over the world, nodded to himself in satisfaction and settled down for a hard-earned rest. But seven days after unveiling his own imperfect creation, self-proclaimed god Kanye West has had no time for slumber. Kids See Ghosts, West’s joint project with Kid Cudi, has arrived just one week on from his polarising, half-baked eighth solo album Ye – the worst record in his previously unimpeachable catalogue.
Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock to have his liver pecked out. Kali trampled Shiva while wearing a skirt of human arms and severed heads. Now here comes West, whose rollout of Ye was punctured by his courting of America’s grim forces and offensive commentary on the history of slavery. The controversies that eternally follow West had always dissolved when it came to music-making – the component of his legacy that will endure long after the reality TV shows are pulled from the air and the pageantry around him turns to dust – but Ye suggested that even the music had lost its godlike vision and reach.
Thankfully, Kids See Ghosts succeeds by avoiding most of the pitfalls that damaged his solo release. Ye teased the idea that the cabin-in-the-woods seclusion of Wyoming – where West has been bunkered down with collaborators – would spark trenchant, introspective meditations. Instead it featured the occasional arbitrary nod to his oft-discussed id and the news cycle that West himself had forged, sprayed with a high-end sheen and stitched together in time to meet a needlessly self-imposed deadline. The record was a prom student rushing down the stairs and out to the limo in a dishevelled, half-on tux.
whose colouring of West’s sound stretches all the way back to the anguished, melodic synthpop of 2008 record 808s & Heartbreak. With him as co-pilot, Kids See Ghosts is a shotgun blast to the senses, swarming with blistering electronics, laser-cut samples, psychedelic crescendos and edges as blurry as a half-remembered dream. Like Ye and West’s recently helmed Pusha T record Daytona, the album is just seven tracks long. Kanye is due to produce two more records, presumably in this format, with Nas and Teyana Taylor. The brevity is effective as Kanye and Cudi stack ideas on top of ideas, packing the 23 minutes with as much creativity as possible. The chemistry is that of two old friends who no longer have to second-guess each other’s instincts.
Ye felt sonically depressed, like every beat had been done before but better. Here, West stretches himself. Opener, Feel The Love, is a glorious riposte to the “love is all you need” hippie ideology West was pushing on Twitter just a couple weeks ago, unleashing sinister keys, a typically barbed verse from Pusha and a manic impression of a gun from Kanye that rivals Big Shaq’s ridiculous rasps. On the title track, West swathes Yasiin Bey’s voice in gentle electronics, while Cudi’s spiritual hums match the rumbling beat. Hearing the producer artfully fold the orchestration into the voices of his collaborators shows that his almighty ear for music is back.
It would be horribly inaccurate to cast Cudi as simply a facilitator for West’s rediscovered form. In fact, Kids See Ghosts could be viewed primarily as an exercise in highlighting all of Cudi’s strengths while erasing the more outlandish proclivities. It is Kanye who is frequently pulled into Cudi’s lane and not vice versa. Reborn could pass for an early Cudi cut as he blesses himself over dinky piano keys. Freeee (Ghost Town, Pt. 2), the album’s undoubted centrepiece, is an acid-laced trip into bohemian spiritualism. Rap-rock hybrids like this are often execrable: it’s impossible to envision Kanye making it without Cudi in the booth to summon the spirit of flower power.
But what’s perhaps most striking about Kids See Ghosts is how much both artists’ writing shines. West’s lyrics are as intricate and affecting as they have been in ages. On Cudi Montage, he lays out a brutal cycle of violence and the pain of loss before signing off with a shout-out to Alice Johnson, the African American grandmother jailed for over two decades on a non-violent drug charge who Kim Kardashian West recently – and successfully – lobbied for release. In these moments, he momentarily disentangles himself from the self-spun tabloid web. The spirit of the artist who once decried the capitalist grind on Spaceship, and called out George W Bush on live TV, again seems palpable. Cudi, meanwhile, indulges in the stoner wisdom that matches his languid flows: “Many things that will trouble you / Look beyond for a feelin’ like you never knew / Reachin’ out, huntin’ for the truth” Cudi needs to believe in more than the god sitting in the studio next to him.
Kids See Ghosts will go down as a minor release in West’s canon, and this oddball odyssey to Wyoming won’t be remembered as one of his best eras. Yet the album does something he needed. It reasserts him as a fun, thrilling rap music-maker that tests the genre’s boundaries. Sometimes, gods need company.