We all remember what it felt like to be a kid at night. As we lay in the darkness we imagined monsters in our closets, ghosts lurking in the shadows and a had general sense of unease, often leading us to find safety in our parents’ rooms. This frightful ritual is soon forgotten once we’re older, simply because the experience is perceived as something that is particular to childhood. As we grow up, the fear slowly goes away and we are relieved to learn that there was nothing to be afraid of in the first place. Philosophers like Sam Harris will also happily point out that the advancement of science has helped our society realize that the ancient folklore concerning magic and ghosts was a product of unreasonable superstitions that we are no longer plagued with in the present age.
But is this really the case? Could it be possible that ghosts don’t just disappear with science and adulthood but instead morph into something else? This seems to be true if we define ghosts less literally, and instead describe them as any abstraction that haunts the human experience: things that aren’t actually real but nonetheless very concretely worry us. From this perspective, the sight of anthropomorphic spirits is replaced by disturbing prophecies of our imminent failures; we are no longer burdened by the creepy sound of our closet door creaking, but instead shutter as our envy of others gnaws at our self-worth.
To silence these demons, we go out into the world tirelessly seeking temporary fixes that dissolve shortly after they are obtained. In a capitalistic society especially, these fixes are commodified and marketed as things we need to buy to find fulfilment in our lives, whether that be clothes, sex or spirituality. The Buddha described this experience as dukkha or suffering because we constantly thirst to overcome illusory obstacles with false promises, causing a sense of chronic frustration.
Considering this, it is not surprising that mass drug prescriptions and grandiose assurances for change have done little to improve the deteriorating mental health epidemic that continues to persist. It seems that beyond theoretical awareness and the consumption of products, the root of the problem lies in a feeling in the same way that a child may comprehend that ghosts don’t exist or be bribed by a parent to sleep silently, yet still be crippled with fear during the night. The reasonable response may have to do with going the uncomfortable step further than the status quo, examining these ghosts at their roots.
The brilliance of the joint album of Kanye West and Kid Cudi, Kids See Ghosts (KSG), is that it confronts our haunting abstractions genuinely, offering a perspective that we have been spiritually deprived of for a long time, especially considering where it's coming from.
In many ways Kid Cudi remains a mythical figure in the world of music. The story goes that Cudi left his humble upbringings in Cleveland, Ohio to make it big in New York. After a couple years of stagnation, a mixtape of Cudi’s caught the attention of his soon-to-be mentor, Kanye West, leading to the smash hit, “Day ’N’ Nite” in 2008. From there, just like his mentor, he became a revolutionary in his own right. What made Cudi so unique was that not only was he openly willing to discuss his difficulties with mental health in his music, but he also became a kind of loner-hero who made it cool to be an outsider. Cudi’s music wasn’t just enjoyable, it was a refuge for those who felt like they didn’t belong.
It was therefore a rough experience for fans when Cudi seemed to fall off the rails. After his 2010 release, Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager, it was clear that his mental health was deteriorating, and from there he released a slew of projects that sounded like a wholly different person. Cudi’s charm seemed to quickly evaporate and his music sounded detached and incomprehensible, reaching a low with 2015’s Speeding Bullet 2 Heaven.
But even before KSG reaches ten seconds, it’s already clear that Cudi has returned to his former self. When he sings “I can still feel the love!” there is such a sense of confidence and purpose that those six words seem to outdo the past eight years of his career combined. And while Kanye’s recent musical inconsistencies and personal life turmoil make him much harder to root for, he also provides the album with a razor sharp focus, both in his production (he somehow manages to flip a 1930s Christmas song into a banger) and his lyrics.
As KSG is the first full project Kanye and Cudi have released together, they also prove to have a special chemistry: Cudi’s mellow vibe balances Kanye’s mania and Kanye outlines the perfect sounds for Cudi’s melodies. The experience of listening to this album is both eerie and cathartic like being in a passionate therapy session on psychedelics. There are moments when both artists take a step back to provide poignant insights on the state of their mental health and moments of complete immersion into their chaotic lives.
The second track of the album, “Fire,” plays out like the tortured mind frantically seeking answers, as Cudi sings, “On this road I find/ These scars I left behind/ Heaven lift me up.” Cudi’s quick shift from confidence on the first track to repentance here is not unlike the grips of anxiety. We may go through our days confidently trying to escape our past lives and darker selves, but just like a shadow, Cudi realizes that the faster we run from our unpleasant realities, the faster they catch up to us, leading him to ask how he can go forward with these scars.
The honest pleas for self-help take a sinister turn once “Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2)” begins, as Kanye and Cudi boast that they have finally conquered their trauma. On this song, pain is characterized as a kind of prison that is exacerbated when we’re misunderstood by others. Even during the toughest of times, there are always points along the road when the pain recedes and there’s an intoxicating sense of freedom that comes along with it. But there’s a reason the album doesn’t end with this track, as once we reflect on the complexities of our lives, this seemingly permanent freedom becomes as fleeting as anything.
We are then taken to the oasis of “Reborn” which strays away from the grand proclamations of eternal freedom and turns its focus to the small victories. As Kanye reflects on his exhaustion from being in the limelight, Cudi chants the meditative mantra “I’m so reborn/ I’m moving forward/ Keep moving forward,” accepting that we can’t move on until we’ve found peace within ourselves first.
The closer, “Cudi Montage” samples a posthumously released guitar melody by Kurt Cobain which is likely not a coincidence, as like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, he too was an iconic figure who took his own life. After spending the majority of the album looking inward on their twisted journey to tranquility, Kanye and Cudi now look outward, struggling to process what they see. “Everybody want world peace/ ‘Til your niece gets shot in the dome-piece/ Then you go and buy your own piece/ Hoping it’ll help you find your own peace,” Kanye hopelessly proposes. The unsettling truth is that no matter how much we help ourselves, the well-being of those around us will continue to remain uncertain, whether that means succumbing to their own demons or tragically being involved in someone else’s. As the album’s attention shifts from the self to others, it starts to feel like the two are actually the same thing.
The experience the album portrays remains similar to Dante’s descent into hell in the Inferno. Dante can’t turn back once he’s in the dark woods but must go through different phases of hell until he confronts Satan at the center of it to redeem himself. So too in KSG the two artists cannot escape their ghosts until they meet them head on, reminiscent of the advice of Alan Watts:
“The rule for all terrors is head straight into them. When you are sailing in a storm, you don’t let the wave hit your boat on the side. You go bow into the wave and ride it. So, in the same way, old folklore says whenever you meet a ghost don’t run away, because the ghost will capture the substance of your fear and will materialize itself out of your own substance and will kill you eventually, because it will take over all your own vitality. So then, whenever confronted with a ghost, walk straight into it and it will disappear.”