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Kanye West wisely settles into the background on Kid Cudi collab 'Kids See Ghosts'

Kanye West and Kid Cudi

Kanye West and Kid Cudi Evan Agostini/Steve C. Mitchell

Theirs is a collision unlike any other in modern hip-hop.

Kanye West is a pillar of purpose, a totem of towering provocation. Cudi, the inward-oriented and overlooked experimentalist who creased the pop consciousness with "Day 'n' Night" a decade ago, is Ye's muse and first mate, a wanderer who squints and ignores the winds of validation that whip around him on his lonesome artistic trek.

Theirs is a collision unlike any other in modern hip hop. With Kids See Ghosts, they've given us the first true look at the duo creating as equals, each in service of the other. It's a mesmerizing 24-minute collage of style, the kind of beautifully chaotic, elemental clash that once spurred the old Kanye to reimagine rap's limits.

The two artists first came together in 2008 for 808s & Heartbreak, with Cudi the shadowy Greek chorus aiding the protagonist Yeezy in what's proved to be rap's emotional revolution. The graciously forgettable Cudi played a similar role, to some degree, on Kanye's future projects.

But Kids See Ghosts strikes an actual balance between the two creators. Ye is the director, maintaining general control, but he relinquishes the spotlight to Cudi, his star.

Kanye is this giant figure, always rousing and reaching after passions in the deepest corners of our gut. He rips them out and holds them in his hand like a pumping heart, then raises those revelations over his head and screams for freedom, his face smeared in blood as the entire battlefield stares at him.

Cudi comes close to the same effect without commanding the center of attention—an ability he had before working with Kanye. Cudi dares to excavate his emotions no matter where this leads him, whether it’s hauntingly possessed synth melodies, imaginative sing-rapping, or wholly unapproachable weirdo genius stuff.

For Kids See Ghosts, Kanye brilliantly casts him alone, resuscitating his pop star bona fides like Tarantino exhuming Travolta for Pulp Fiction. Cudi, no matter where he runs, is still the Man on the Moon, still rap's most descriptive introspective.

On the dusky "Fire," Kanye’s quick narration sets a scene of exasperation. To a spur-jingling horse-trot of a beat, Cudi trudging along a dusty sun-beat plain, amidst another loner’s journey, his artistic integrity pushing him along, but he still hums to himself "heaven lift me up." Another Cudi recitation, this time "keep moving forward," grounds "Reborn," as Cudi calmly but assuredly walks candlelit in a dark cave that echoes with his prayers.

KSG is a search for where hip hop has left to go. Back in ’08, Ye and Cudi introduced a synth-driven boost of emotional nuance to rap, a production style that would be grafted onto all of hip hop, while legitimizing rap-singing. Both of these aspects appear in miniature on the seven-trackKSG but so much has happened since then—Yeezus, The Life of Pablo—that has pushed them past their first evolutionary steps.

"Kids See Ghosts" is a specter-summoning drum circle, "Fire" a soundtrack to an imaginary western. "Cudi Montage" begins with a twangy, looping electric guitar, while "Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2)" is an Eagles stadium jam with Yeezy as Henley, Cudi as Frey, and Ty Dolla $ign bringing the stoner beach-bum Joe Walsh dramatics.

On "4th Dimension" Ye provides a classic example of how his psychic energy intensifies the most mundane setting. The churning beat slaps, and when Cudi fire-bombs the track, he’s like the impossibly calm badass in a movie at the moment he inevitably snaps, speeding his wandering pace to a tighter bit of rap-singing that trails his rap heat like a jet streak.

Kanye barks bars and howls, his direction felt on the cinematically effective shifts of tone on "Feel the Love." A single sedate but mysteriously active synth, a hard-edged Pusha T cameo, and Cudi's scratchy hook lead up to Kanye's aggressively accelerating sound effects. Then comes a sudden instrumental free fall that’s not an adrenaline rush but a suspended-midair glimpse of serenity as you’re enveloped in fluffy clouds—until Ye lashes his tongue out to snatch and toss you back into the maw of his catharsis.

Though Kanye's presence is felt throughout in the audacious production, he’s often lurking in the background. Always a collaborative creature, Ye has often preferred the role of leader-innovator who employs as factory of people industriously carrying out his ambitious vision. But first with Pusha T’s Daytona now KSG, Kanye is satisfied to be a behind-the-scenes Oz.

And Cudi allows Kanye to capture those smaller moments of emotion that have defined a generation of rap. When the Rouser grabs hold and invigorates the Recluse. nothing in rap today sounds fuller or more complete.