Hitting rock bottom to climb: Kanye West’s through lines in Ye and Kids See Ghosts

The recent Kanye West release schedule has brought happiness to skinny jean wearing hipsters, and serious hip-hop fans alike. Following the meteoric success of Pusha T’s Daytona, the focus shifted to Kanye’s solo album Ye, and his collaborative project with Kid Cudi. Ye was the first true Kanye project to come from the Wyoming era, and was met with relatively high acclaim, excusing some scathing reviews from Pitchfork, that still rated the album higher than what they said in the body of the review.

Ye was soulful, eclectic, and much more introspective than first anticipated, with beautiful sample work and some typical Kanye-tier one liners that are equal parts absurd and catchy (there are other ways to prove you can focus on two things at once). One of the main elements to this release was the discourse surrounding Kanye’s recent social media presence, jumping between yelling about Republicans, his theories on [mental] slavery, and tweeting random thoughts like ‘I be taking naps’; fans were left confused about, or disappointed in, what Kanye had to say. It begs an interesting question: is someone whose beliefs are seemingly at odds with the basis of the art forms he operates in, able to promote those beliefs and remain successful?

In the case of Kanye, he would be successful regardless, because as much as he was declared as ‘cancelled’ when he came out in support of Trump, the same fans were likely crowded around an iPhone watching the live stream – whether it be out of support or just pure morbid interest.

Comparatively, Kids See Ghosts was less tinged by the Kanye-rant era, due to his partnership with Kid Cudi – which kind of acted as a mitigating factor for the hype, and allowed a greater focus on the project as a whole; the shitstorm had subsided when compared to the flurry of discourse surrounding Ye.

This difference in the social climate of this release reflects an initial separation between these albums, and this is only the beginning. Where Ye was soulful and smooth, KSG is psychedelic and distorted, with lurching instrumentation and a wide array of effects and modulation that only accentuates the darker tone of the project.

Both albums weigh in at the magic number of 7 songs – a trend maintained throughout the Wyoming release cycle. There has been critiques and questions raised about this length, with most albums only barely scraping past 20-something minutes. Personally, I am quite a fan of the less-is-more approach, because each song has so much more significance tied to it. So each one really has to make a statement, as opposed to just furthering the concepts and themes explored in the album. Luckily, most of the albums released thus far have been consistent enough to uphold the standard required for a such a tight project.

The thematic nature of both albums has a semblance of overlap, with Kanye still ruminating upon the consequences of fame and fortune, while coming to terms with his own mental illness – his ‘superpower’ to quote the man himself. KSG definitely leans more-so into the mental health angle, more than likely brought about by Cudi’s presence on the album, following his release from rehab.

Despite the subject matter, both projects look to these issues as sources of triumph and growth, most poignantly expressed by “Ghost Town” and “Freeee” (Ghost Town MKII as it seems), the latter particularly punchy as the shouts of ‘I FEEL FREEeEEEeee’ echo in the ears of listeners. KSG‘s “Reborn” is also pivotal to this development – with both artists using their experiences as a source for development and growth. The idea of hitting rock bottom to climb is intertwined within both albums; destroying to rebuild. This idea of reconstruction is a pivotal fixture of rap music, with artists often lamenting past wrong-doing as a means of progressing and improving oneself – Kanye and Kid Cudi are often seen as big players in this style of writing, and the consistency and clarity of communication in both projects validates that opinion to a very high extent.

Despite the strong introspective basis for a lot of the subject matter in both albums, it begs an interesting question. Why couldn’t Kanye reflect previously? This was brought about by a conversation with a good friend of mine, who questioned my reasoning for enjoying the reflective elements of Ye, despite the fact that it feels long overdue. It’s definitely an interesting angle to explore, as with the amount of material Kanye has released, you’d think self-awareness of his own celebrity and the power his words have would have been communicated in a similar manner previously – yet he engages in these Twitter rants and meltdowns and supports causes he arguably shouldn’t be that keen on.

Artists as political mouthpieces is always an interesting topic – is it fair to imbue these individuals with such influence socially and politically if it isn’t their area of knowledge and expertise? Ultimately just because individuals have a strong following and attention given to them, it shouldn’t preclude them from being able to exercise independent thought relative to the attitudes of their fanbase.

The pedestals artists find themselves on have different implications the higher their status – reverence becomes idolisation, and every tweet or spoken section of an interview becomes incredibly significant for the fans and press alike. This is an overly reductionistic statement, but I think it deserves attention nonetheless given how many artists are constantly looked to as political leaders when they haven’t really asked to be in that role. The prevalence of this occurrence is very common and speaks to the significance of fame in our modern world where our heroes and idols are so much more accessible than ever before – we keep them on these astronomical pedestals but also with closely-tied significance to us as fans.

Aside from the more rant-inducing discussion that this may generate – the writing on both albums is great. Kanye is rapping at as high a level as ever, with more poise and a slicker delivery than recent projects. His verse on “Kids See Ghosts” may be the best lyrical performance of his in years. Kid Cudi is also in fine form too – coming off his excellent guest feature on A$AP Forever, he springs into action on “Ghost Town”, and “Kids See Ghosts”, providing his trademark hums and lilted delivery, which meshes incredibly well with the cavernous basslines and percussion, as well as Mike Dean’s piercing guitar licks. The bridge on “Reborn” is absolutely exceptional, and one of the greatest performances on any song released this year.

The expressive nature of both of these albums definitely is something that marks the significance of both projects. Exploring mental illness on such a large scale in music such as this is a difficult feat to do well with the amount of tabloid hype and the rumour mill that perpetuates theories and ideas. An example that springs to mind is the discourse surrounding the leak of Flower Boy – Tyler, the Creator’s beautifully introspective 2017 album – in which lyrics regarding his sexuality were passed around by blogs and fans alike, before Tyler could even decided if he wanted to address the lyrics.

In a culture of almost instant information access, lyrics and subject matter can often be misconstrued depending on the context in which they fit within the music. Ye and Kids See Ghosts do this so well because of the broad basis for the discussion Kanye and Kid Cudi engage in. Their ideas and introspective discourse concerning isolation, paranoia, feelings of guilt, and depression are well established across both projects to the point where the significance of the content remains months after the release.

“Reborn” is an excellent example of this, with both rappers trading verses over similar subject matter, allowing listeners to have a clear and vibrant understanding of the message that is being communicated. The attention to detail with regards to the discourse taking place is a powerful element to take away from the album. The artists are saying what they feel and what they want, in a way that leaves nothing to the imagination. The clarity makes for a clear communication with listeners, almost as if it’s simply a conversation with an instrumental underpinning it.

Ultimately both of these albums, and the era in which they fit, are radically unique compared to a lot of the music released in hip-hop previously. This doesn’t necessarily improve or worsen the albums, but the wider context for the releases is definitely worth taking into account when thinking about the projects.

I believe both of these projects are excellent, mostly well written, and exceptionally produced – they fit the 7 song structure well as each song is good enough in it’s own right to fit within the album.

If I had to construct a 7 song album from both of these it would be as follows:

“Yikes”, “4th Dimension”, “Reborn”, “Freee”, “Kids See Ghosts”, “Violent Crimes”, “Cudi Montage”

If I had to pick it a favourite of the two, I would definitely have to side with Kids See Ghosts – the darker aspects of the album and the more scatterbrained approach really work well – and it’s so amazing to see Kid Cudi back in top form once more. We don’t need a Speeding Bullet to Heaven 2.

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