Hip-hop’s greatest duos are wonders of chemistry and complementary strengths. Chuck D was Public Enemy’s politically charged brain, and Flavor Flav provided comic relief. Outkast’s Big Boi anchored Andre 3000’s offbeat creativity with solid hooks and bars. Pusha-T and Malice mixed a malevolent id and a haunted conscience as the Clipse. Kid Cudi and Kanye West are an unlikely pair because neither one is heralded as a technically gifted singer or rapper, but working together on West’s 808s & Heartbreak, Cudi’s Man on the Moon series, and elsewhere, the pair managed to leave indelible marks on the landscape of mainstream rap. 808s is on the short list of the most influential albums of the aughts; without the soft drums, atmospheric synths, and wounded vocals of songs like “Say You Will,” it’s possible that Drake would continue trailing the moves of indie rap vets Phonte and Nickelus F, as he did in his early mixtapes, instead of exploding into the pop-rap supernova he is today. You can catch a glimmer of Cudi in fashion-conscious rappers like Travis Scott and A$AP Rocky; you can hear his unvarnished emotionalism in the confessional words of young songwriters like Kevin Abstract.
Kid Cudi and Kanye West are an effective team because both are Midwest boys with complicated stories, whose music radiates whatever joy or pain they’re feeling in the moment. Kanye is hip-hop’s premier maximalist and egomaniac, but his music and manner have grown progressively prickly and troubled since the loss of his mother in 2007, and we are only this year learning that worrisome reports about his well-being during the rollout of 2016’s The Life of Pablo dovetailed with an opioid addiction and a bipolar disorder diagnosis. Cudi chased his dream of success in hip-hop from Cleveland to New York City, where he toiled in retail until he met West and Fool’s Gold Records founder A-Trak, who joint-released his bleak breakout single “Day N Nite.” Over the next few years, the singer built a strong following off of therapeutic tunes about coping with depression, then a 2010 drug arrest cemented the idea that the depression and dependency stories of “Don’t Play This Song” and “These Worries” were coming from a very real place of inner torment. Both West and Cudi closed out 2016 in treatment, West in a terrifying hospitalization incident where he was carted off, handcuffed inside an ambulance, and Cudi in rehab for self-harm and thoughts of taking his own life.
Kids See Ghosts, their debut collaborative album, is the work of two men struggling to shake their demons. West is the reckless, flamboyant half of the duo; his first appearance on the album opener “Feel the Love” seats him in the role of a ballroom commentator (or a dembow artist), yelping monosyllabic exclamations over the beat while Cudi whoops through the hook. “Fire” sees Kanye blasting rails and lashing out at haters before Cudi, the pair’s relaxed, introspective half, offers an earnest invocation: “Heaven lift me up.” The good-cop, bad-cop approach is aided by music that can turn from bliss to rage on a dime. “Fire” is a devilish drum-and-guitar stomp that sounds like Man on the Moon 2’s “REVOFEV” descending into a riot. “Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2)” cues up old Marcus Garvey lines about knowledge of self over a sinister rock riff while both rappers engage in a bit of primal-scream therapy. A massive hook from Ty Dolla $ign teases stunning beauty out of the maelstrom, as if to suggest that true freedom is the potential either to sink under the weight of what’s bugging you or to work at rising above it. Kids See Ghosts wants us to float; the same way Kanye’s newest solo effort YE sought a measure of redemption across “Wouldn’t Leave” and “Ghost Town,” the new album’s “Reborn” and “Cudi Montage” attempt to carry on by creating distance between both men and their tough times.