What a Kanye West-Kid Cudi Joint Album Means to Hip-Hop
West has made some of his best art with his back against the wall — and often with Cudi by his side
Kanye West’s Twitter became a political flashpoint last week — even more than usual — when he ignited a firestorm with tweets praising Donald Trump and other prominent conservative thinkers and policies. His controversial political statements have momentarily obscured the major artistic announcements West made just days before: Beginning in late May, he’ll oversee the release of albums from Nas, Pusha T, and Teyana Taylor, in addition to releasing a solo full-length of his own and a collaborative LP with Kid Cudi.
Among the projects West detailed, the most surprising — and significant — may be the Cudi collaboration. The new creative partnership represents a fresh stage in West and Cudi’s relationship, which has been rocky in recent years and at times saw the two publicly exchanging barbs. It also represents a potential creative breakthrough: For a decade, West and Cudi have played seminal roles in each other’s careers, elevating one another’s crafts, often in the face of personal and professional adversity. As they prepare to release their self-titled debut as Kids See Ghosts on West’s 41st birthday, June 8, both men desperately need a win: Cudi hasn’t released an acclaimed project in years, and thanks to his recent tweets, West’s public approval hasn’t taken such a nosedive since he interrupted Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs. When West dropped the nonsensical “Lift Yourself” and the hyper-political “Ye Vs. the People,” his first new songs since 2016, over the weekend, listeners greeted the tunes skeptically at best.
West and Cudi have a well-worn origin story: They supposedly met in the mid-aughts when an unknown Cudi, then working at New York's BAPE store, neglected to remove the sensor from a jacket West had just purchased. In 2008, Cudi's A Kid Named Cudi mixtape came across West's desk, and he promptly signed the rising Cleveland artist to his G.O.O.D. Music label.
The pair notched successes quickly. In the wake of his mother’s death and his separation from partner Alexis Phifer, West reset stylistically, working extensively with Cudi on his somber fourth album, 808s & Heartbreak. Cudi co-wrote four tracks, including the smash hit “Heartless,” which peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100. In the years since, “Heartless” co-producer No I.D. has even cited the song as the project’s catalyst: It developed while West and Cudi were working on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3, but West claimed it for his own forthcoming project. “’Heartless’ made 808s happen,” No I.D. later explained.
West, ever the self-promoter, soon trumpeted the introspective, self-lacerating aesthetic he and Cudi had pioneered. “Me and Cudi are the originators of the style, kinda like what Alexander McQueen is to fashion,” West told Complex in August 2009. “Everything else is just Zara and H&M.”
Weeks after West’s Zara line, Cudi released his studio debut, Man on the Moon: The End of Day. Executive produced by West, the ambitious record’s brooding stoner-rap pushed 808s’ confessional vibe to heady extremes — and made Cudi G.O.O.D. Music’s most successful new artist since John Legend. Though 808s and Man on the Moon received mixed reviews at the time, they’ve since grown in estimation. West called 808s the “first, like, black new wave album” in a 2013 interview and revisited the record in a pair of 2015 concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. And both records paved the way for the fusion of R&B and hip-hop that has dominated the charts in recent years.
They didn't stop there, of course. After stirring scandal at the 2009 VMAs, one of West's first forays back into music was as the featured guest on “Erase Me,” Cudi's lead single from Man on the Moon II. And when West convened the dream team that helped him bring 2010's epochal My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy into existence, Cudi was a key member. Still only 26, Cudi co-wrote and appeared on the album's dark horse standout “Gorgeous” and added his flair to three highlights from West's G.O.O.D. Fridays singles series, including its title track. Cudi's contributions to Fantasy's “All of the Lights,” as a co-writer and a vocalist, netted him Grammys for Best Rap Song and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration.
“I don't think anybody is fucking with what we — me and Kanye — got,” Cudi told Complex in September 2010. “Creatively, there's nobody. ... As far as creativity, pound for pound, track for track, video for video, hands down, there's nobody fucking with me and 'Ye.”
West has notoriously made some of his best art with his back against the wall and, often, with Cudi by his side. In return, West has pushed Cudi’s creativity: There's a degree of one-upmanship to his relationship with West. “If I never am better than Kanye, in my brain, I'm always going to be trying to be, forever and ever until the day that I die,” he told Complex in 2009.
With Kids See Ghosts, they seem ready to help each other once again. His polarizing pair of new tunes aside, West’s been a non-starter musically since he abruptly canceled his Saint Pablo Tour and sought hospitalization for exhaustion in November 2016. It’s telling that his only two live appearances since have both been with Cudi, who also sought mental health treatment in the fall of 2016, for performances of “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” in November 2017 and February.
Cudi could also use a boost. He’s continued to spurn hip-hop’s mainstream, from his 2012 rap-rock project WZRD to 2013’s Indicud, which featured contributions from Father John Misty and Haim. Yet his sonic experiments been tepidly received, and his critical decline has coincided with waning influence in West’s sphere. Cudi griped when the G.O.O.D. Music don largely kept him off 2012’s label compilation Cruel Summer, and Cudi officially left G.O.O.D. Music in April 2013. Though Cudi contributed to West's 2016 album The Life of Pablo, tensions boiled over months later with a nasty war of words over just how much he owed his success to West; the conflict only resolved when West effectively called a truce by declaring Cudi “the most influential artist of the past 10 years” at a concert in Houston in September 2016. West has a sense for compelling narrative — look no further than the Yeezus and Pablo sessions, soap operas that spawned their own mythologies. What better story than recording a comeback album with his once-protege?
The creative possibilities are particularly exciting: It's anyone's guess what exactly Kids See Ghosts will sound like, particularly because Cudi didn't only help West usher in “black new wave,” but also Fantasy's maximalist soul and Watch the Throne's opulent hip-hop. Even as the two drifted apart, Cudi assisted Yeezus' spare electro-rap and Pablo's fractured gospel. “Me and ‘Ye, that’s why we hit it off so well when we first started working together, because we both think outside the box,” he told HipHopDX in September 2009, at the outset of his creative relationship with West. “We both are on trying to push the envelope of creativity.” Should the duo rekindle their creative mojo and deliver a gem, they could rehabilitate their images and change the genre along the way.