The culmination of Cudi inching closer to that truth is Kids See Ghosts, his new joint project with his mentor and friend Kanye West, with whom he has had a turbulent but fruitful relationship. The two traded swipes at each other in September 2016: Cudi on Twitter over West’s use of songwriters, and West during an in-concert rant on his Saint Pablo Tour. But the feud was quickly washed away in the same month, when West declared Cudi “the most influential artist of the past 10 years” (thinking, no doubt, of Cudi’s pioneering introspection and use of melody). Cudi, fresh out of rehab, joined West onstage in November 2016.
The core of their relationship, it seems, has always been a desire to push each other creatively. In the June run of G.O.O.D. Music releases -- seven-song albums by Pusha T, Nas, Teyana Taylor and West solo -- Kids See Ghosts, Cudi’s first album since 2016’s Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’, is the one with the most emotional resonance. (It also outperformed all the other G.O.O.D. releases but West’s in its first week, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and moving 142,000 units, according to Nielsen Music.) For all the debate about what West has left to offer the cultural and musical conversation, it should not be lost that Kids See Ghosts is a reawakening for Cudi -- a contributor who makes every sound richer, more layered. West offers the palette of primary colors, and Cudi stretches them across the spectrum. His honesty bursts from the edges of the songs, like when he opens the album shouting, “I CAN STILL FEEL THE LOVE,” and it echoes, a mantra to both speaker and listener.
Sitting in this unshakable hotel with sunlight moving across the table, Cudi mostly wants to talk about joy. Not as if he’s trying to convince me or sell me on his joy, but like he has made a long journey along a river, finally saw his reflection in the water for the first time and wants to tell me all about it. He beams when circling back repeatedly to his 8-year-old daughter, Vada Mescudi. “Make sure this is good,” he tells me early in the interview. “I want my daughter to read it.” When we pause so that he can quickly eat half of a burger drowned in ketchup, I tell him about the kids in Ohio, where we are both from, who listen to his music and feel more alive. Kids who are doing better because he’s doing better. He pauses before biting into his burger, stares at the light along the table and exclaims, “Word?,” as if the thought had never occurred to him before. He has long departed from his hometown of Cleveland and now resides in Los Angeles. He mentions how the seasons don’t really change, current heat notwithstanding. Gone are the wild swings of Ohio weather, replaced with a consistent calm. Cudi himself has withstood what seems to be the most unpredictable period in his life, and what washes over him now is a palpable sense of serenity. I wonder out loud if the lack of seasonal change takes some getting used to. It does, he tells me. It does.
What are you doing these days to keep your head right and your energy right?
I’m just creating a lot, with more love in my heart for what I’m doing and for myself. Living a healthy life, keeping my family around and staying on a mission, which is making music that means something. I’m focusing on my art again and throwing myself back into it and wanting to write something with more of a positive outlook on things, because I’ve written the dark so well for so long. I wanted to bring the opposite of that, you know? I’m at a place where I was able to do that. It took me so long to get to that place, and I was really excited to write from that standpoint when I got there. Passion, Pain was more positive, but I wasn't necessarily living when I was writing it. Because I wrote that album before I went to rehab, then I came out and released it, I never really got a chance to write post-rehab, show the world where I’m at right now. That’s what Kids See Ghosts was: to update the world on where I’m at.
The joy you get working with Kanye has always shone through in your collaborative efforts, no matter what the project has looked like, but you’ve also seen each other through some tension. How have you felt fed by that partnership throughout your career, and do you feel like it’s still progressing?
Oh, man. I think me and Kanye are always going to make awesome shit together. We just have this chemistry that’s undeniable, especially when we have to fight for it with each other. It’s really easy for us. Kids See Ghosts did take us a little over a year-and-a-half to just get it tight and where we wanted it to be, but the actual songwriting process and putting the songs together wasn't really hard. Me and Ye, we click like that musically. But -- I was just talking about this with Jaden [Smith] today -- it was still the pressure of going toe-to-toe, line for line with Ye, and that was heavy for me. At first, when he mentioned he wanted to do the album, I didn't know how serious he was. But I was real serious about it. Months went by, and we just kept working on it and chiseling away at it. It was funny to us when people were talking about how the album was rushed or last-minute. I knew what it took. I was there the whole time.