The first things which interest me on every play of this album are the parallels between Kids See Ghosts and Pusha T’s DAYTONA. Both albums begin with a slow, surgical verse from Pusha delivered nearly a cappella; both move to a foot-stomping Track 2 built around vintage-sounding guitars with a hint of psychedelia; both repurpose soundbites with positive intentions and turn them to their own twisted ends. (To that last point, “Come Back Baby”‘s flip of Mighty Hannibal’s anti-drug “The Truth Shall Make You Free” as an intro to, uh, a drug song is one of Kanye’s best black comedy moments, while “4th Dimension”’s creepy sample is where the album veers closest to its surreal cover art). This isn’t a direct one-to-one comparison, though, and it’s the divergences between the albums which colour them as much as their similarities. While DAYTONA doubles down on Pusha’s ice-cold raps in its second half, Kids See Ghosts starts to resemble a more complete ye in its emotionally vulnerable second half, when the two rappers begin an unexpected, touching reckoning with their insecurities and mistakes.
This is why a moment which many have justifiably rolled eyes at, namely Cudi’s extended repetition of the chorus at the end of “Reborn”, is to me the most important on the album. This more than anything is music of reclamation – “Freeee” reclaims a line 070 Shake introduced to the project as an ode to emotional numbness and turns it to joyous proclamation, “Cudi Montage” reclaims Cudi’s misfire of a grunge album with a brilliantly deployed Kurt Cobain sample, the title track reclaims the “what’s a cloud to a crown” melody from Kanye’s last and significantly less artful collaboration album with Jay-Z. “Reborn”, then, reclaims Kid Cudi, the heartfelt, emotional tunesmith from his hiding place inside Kid Cudi the rapper/producer. ”I’m so I’m so reborn, keep movin’ forward” becomes a kind of mantra as Cudi repeats it over and over and over, defying all logic of when the song should end or how much longevity the chorus should have; he just keeps going until you’re almost hypnotised, forgetting that there was anything else in the track before this, a meditation and a promise and a declaration. It’s shameless nostalgia for days gone by, for the Man on the Moon era, and after a few years of public meltdowns stemming from anxiety and depression both artists are in the ideal place for something like this. There’s lyrical references across the album to hammer it home, subtle but there for the longtime listener, like clues on a map which lead to the fabled treasure of The Old Kanye and The Old Cudi.
The ghosts these kids are seeing are manifold and self-replicating. The ghosts of their own mental illnesses are just in the rearview, quiet for now maybe, but as any sufferer will tell you, never gone for good. Cudi sees the ghosts of the expectations and disappointments the public has saddled him with, what some might call his wasted potential. But I think the people still invested in Cudi’s story at this point are the ones who believe him when he speaks, who can look past the cheesy lyrics for the heartfelt sentiments at the core – the “I try to think about myself as a sacrifice / just to show these kids they ain’t the only ones who up at night” moments, in other words. “Reborn” is that moment. As Kanye finishes reckoning with his own ghosts, doing so more eloquently than he did on an entire album dedicated to doing so – “I was off the meds, I was called insane, what an awesome thing […] I want all the smoke, I want all the blame” – Cudi takes over for his first real spotlight moment.
Maybe you don’t believe him when he says “ain’t no stress on me, Lord”. That’s fine – it could just be some words he scribbled on a page before his turn in the recording booth. But I believe him when he says it, like I always did, and that’s why I buy “Reborn” as a masterpiece, a reclamation of happiness and positivity and The Old Cudi which is never blatant or manipulative in its nostalgia. You’re rolling your eyes at my use of the word ‘masterpiece’, but I’ll stick to it, because it’s one which moves me more honestly and completely than almost anything else from the emo-rap era.