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Kids See Ghosts shrieks at you, grabs you by the ear, and drags you down the hall. It’s incensed, pugnacious, and plucky. Like a blaring alarm clock on Monday morning after three snoozes, it commands attention and makes the blood surge through the veins with such force that you’ll immediately hop up and get to it. Kanye West and Kid Cudi’s opus is unapologetic in its use of turbulent beats, poignant lyricism, and seven-track structure that trims it of bloat. But perhaps what’s most groundbreaking about it is that, through it, we learn about the mental health woes faced by two paragons who revel in their woes, in such ways that expose the surface-level sonic therapy sessions of current emo-rap trends that have attempted to do something similar, but ultimately fail.
It’s not a stretch to say that hip-hop is becoming the new emo genre of choice; the once prominent guitar strums over blues rock have simply been traded in for 808-driven backends. Even more than that, it’s not just the woe and impending doom that have transfixed the modern listener, it’s mental health altogether. The gripping fear of loneliness that occurs immediately post-breakup. Traumatic life experiences that become the catalyst for post-traumatic stress disorder, vividly realized through anxiety and hallucinations. Paranoia and suicidal thoughts that bounce around the inside of the skull like racquetballs in miniature courts.
You’ll find traces of these, and more, through many of the hottest songs of this year, last year, and some time before that. Hell, there’s the paranoia evident in “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” by the Geto Boyz back from 1991. But in recent years, the artistic descriptions of mental health throes have become explicit enough to make censoring them considerable. Lil Uzi’s “XO Tour Llif3” depicted the fraying sanity of a woman with nothing to live for after a vicious break-up. JuiceWRLD ‘s “All Girls Are the Same” chronicles ever-lasting melancholy at the realization of being played for shit by a series of femme fatales that toy with his emotions like cats playing with yarn balls. The late Lil Peep was perhaps the most prevalent in modern emo rap culture, his music offering an analysis of the drug-addled minds of puerile artists that came as close to rockers as humanly possible without claiming the genre for themselves.
There’s nothing wrong with this kind of music; after all, music in general has long been inspired by, and is the catalyst, of raw emotional triumph. But the current trend, ironically, tends to lack the gravitas it packs in its message. Part of it is because of the similar structures and brazen lyricism that stones listeners over their heads with doom and gloom. There’s only so many times that you can hear variations of “I’m sad,” “I’m contemplating self-harm,” and “No one understands my plight,” before you subconsciously distance yourself from it entirely. We have enough strife and sadness in today’s ridiculous world — without meaningful artistic insight, there’s no need to consume that much more of it.
That’s what makes Kids See Ghosts such a bold statement about the stigmas of mental health, especially as they relate to musicians. Kanye and Kid Cudi, to be fair, may be the progenitors of emo rap for the new generation. Ye began as a straight-edge producing rapper with a drive to lyrically eviscerate his way into hip-hop’s elite with conscious raps to inform listeners of what was happening on the streets. He met Cudi at the BAPE store in New York City sometime in the mid 2000s and took him under his wing, signing him to G.O.O.D. Music in 2008. Ye was taken aback at Cudi’s music, that which dangled the darkness of the soul in front of its audience while masquerading as mid-tempo pop-rap. The loss of his mother pushed Kanye in this direction with the critically-acclaimed 808s & Heartbreak, ushering in a new era of rap music defined by its use of emotion as window-dressing. Now, ten years of anger, malaise, sadness, and gutsy arrogance have culminated in seven portly tracks that, when taken together, showcase the full breadth of mental illness in ways that just aren’t happening in the modern conversation.
Album opener “Feel the Love” screeches into the foreground with Cudi’s fond remembrance of past importance. Pusha-T gives his two cents, then back to Cudi’s booming vocals — this time with Kanye West angrily scatting to the beat. The effect is profound; you can feel the anger of waning fame brandishing its head. “Fire” takes a softer approach to diagnosing the self, exposing the failures of the aforementioned duo to the backdrop of mellow riot music (if that’s even a thing). The juxtaposition between these two tracks reminds one of the ping-pong nature of mental illness — sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down. And the two managed to make this clear without explicitly driving home the fact that they’re making songs about mental illness.
It may not be the album’s namesake, but “4th Dimension” is the center piece of Kids See Ghosts. Sometimes, the shit that you’re feeling – you don’t want to be burdened by it. So, you expound upon the random, what’s on your mind at the moment. It’s a subconscious example of bipolar disorder — Ye and Cudi’s previous cuts devour their internal monologues while “4th Dimension” zooms in the opposite direction with meaningless quips. It’s two distinctly different personalities.
From there, “Freee (Ghost Town, Pt. 2)” and “Reborn” traverse the plains of recovery. Kanye echoes 070 Shake’s sentiment on ye’s “Ghost Town” about how he’s numb to criticism. At this point of carelessness, liberation occurs, freeing the mind of hindrances. This brings the happiness that we desire. “Reborn” is the anthem for triumphing over pitfalls and coming out of the mental lows that inspire depression and drug use. You can practically hear the silent streams of tears sliding down Cudi’s face as he sings: “I’m so — I’m so reborn, I’m movin’ forward/ Keep movin’ forward, keep movin’ forward/ Ain’t no stress on me Lord, I’m moving’ forward/ Keep moving’ forward, keep moving’ forward.”
The album’s final two cuts – “Kids See Ghosts” and “Cudi Montage” – are two distinctly different experiences. The former delves into the throws of paranoia and, largely through the spirited production, immerses us in the trapped atmosphere of forlornness that it generates. The latter offers a verse a piece from Cudi and Ye; Cudi quips about the road to restructure his fractured mind while Kanye spills about the environment (likely in homage to his hometown Chicago) and its relation to the endless cycle of violence that drives prison rates up through the roof. On the same track, when one recovers from the mental downs and the other streams his thoughts through the microphone, they appear as two voices in one head, hearkening back to the idea of being bipolar. Kids See Ghosts closes on a whimper, purposefully, to dictate the cyclical nature of mental illness. It never truly leaves you, we just come to terms with recovery while it lingers ominously in the far reaches of our brains.
For as heavy-handed as the themes are, they’re never flaunted in our faces. We organically discover them through each re-listen and analysis of the lyrics. One reason it works so well is because of each artists’ history of mental illness bouts; with the story implied, Kids See Ghosts acts as a summary of the battle, with the outcome largely circling back around to the beginning — this time, a glimmer of hope within the darkness. In a contemporary landscape of headstrong declarations of sadness and depression, this approach stands out like a sore thumb.
When Kids See Ghosts hit streaming services mid-morning on June 8, the tracklist was mangled. It was a mistake, verified by a press release from Def Jam with the correct titles, but it would have been a great move in line with the album’s themes. We’d have anxiety trying to figure out the correct tracklist before anyone else. The fact that an album about mental illness would be the reason that some of us get it would be icing on the cake. While so many artists attempt to have an organic look at the causes of their mental breakdowns, only Kanye and Cudi have been able to craft a hyper-realistic look at their demons. Those demons are similar to what we all face. Thanks to Kids See Ghosts, we can finally kick their asses – this time to bombastic music instead of morose boilerplate.
If you haven’t already, read our review of ‘Kids See Ghosts’ right here.
For more music op-eds, read why rap beef is good for hip-hop right here.