Photo: Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for VEVO

What is freedom to Kanye West? The answer to that question is becoming exceedingly difficult to understand. He’s always positioned himself as a free thinker in the mold of Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, and other titans of industry (without pausing to note the irony that his free thought brings him to the conclusions of the other impresarios in his tax bracket), but as he reemerged in the run-up to Ye, the tone of all that talk began to shift. As you might have heard. We still don’t really know what, precisely, Kanye meant when he said slavery “sounds like a choice” on TMZ, but as this miserable April and May dragged on, it became more and more apparent that his definition of “free thought” had more to do with his perceived freedom to express offensive opinions—and those frequently by rote.

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This is not the same thing as “free thought,” and it’s but one small aspect of Kanye’s heel turn. In a move that was depressing if ideologically consistent, Kanye seemed to go out of his way to avoid answering his critics with any substance on Ye, and while he sounds more engaged and ready to fight on Kids See Ghosts, his collaborative album with Kid Cudi, he only ends up muddling the situation further.

Which wouldn’t be as much of a problem if he didn’t position the notion of freedom right at the album’s center. “Freeee (Ghost Town, Pt. 2)” picks up where Ye’s “Ghost Town” left off. It’s a three-and-a-half-minute barbaric yawp of a song that aims to blast through any ambiguities. Both Kanye and Cudi sound as big and bold and alive as they ever have here, and the brash power of the beat they assemble with 808s & Heartbreak collaborator Jeff Bhasker comes across like an exclamation point at the end of a very long and digressive sentence. It’s meant to be seen as a statement, but as Kanye sings his song of himself, it’s hard to shake the idea that you’re joining in a dubious celebration. What does he think he’s free from?

All of this—Kanye’s infinitely complex relationship with the rest of the world and this particular discussion of it—is unfair to Kid Cudi, who, like a featured player in a Fast And Furious movie, has steadily moved from protégé to nemesis to respected peer in his relationship with Kanye. Kids See Ghosts marks his true return only a year and a half after he checked himself into rehab to fight depression and suicidal ideation, and taking the time out to work on himself seems to have done him wonders. Cudi is, without qualification, the spiritual and artistic backbone of Kids See Ghosts, the source of its truest artistic risks and the instrument of its greatest triumphs.

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Together, he and Kanye bounce through the twisted bop of “4th Dimension,” a song built around a warped sample of Louis Prima singing about Santa Claus. The “whoa-oh-oh”s of Prima’s backing singers roll into the thump of Kanye and Mike Dean’s beat, while Prima, his voice rich with delight, wonders what Santa might be leaving under the tree. There are clear echoes of The College Dropout’s “Jesus Walks” here, and the materialist glee of Prima’s singing makes it ripe for some kind of comment on the corruption of what we hold dear—arguably The Old Kanye’s most consistent thematic concern. Naturally, the Kanye Of Summer 2018 uses it to rap about anal sex. Cudi, meanwhile, sits low in the beat, cruising ahead at his own pace without losing sight of what’s chasing him. “Such a lost boy, caught up in the darkest I had,” he raps, chewing on the “boy” with obvious relish at having made it through.

As its title suggests, “Reborn” serves as a clear-eyed mission statement. Cudi’s voice here is soft but assured, and he delivers his verse in a kind of bedroom-confessional croon. “Peace is something that starts with me,” he sings, quietly echoing the admission that he had “no peace” in his rehab announcement. What’s most striking is how gentle he is with himself, how close he feels to the song. It rubs off on Kanye, who’s more direct than he has been since The Life Of Pablo’s “Real Friends.” He’s been through immense struggles of his own—some of them self-created, many of them not—and the real vulnerability he occasionally flashes does more to humanize his last few months than the “I don’t get reception here” posturing of Ye.

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And he allows Cudi to take him further than he’s been willing to go by himself. The closing “Cudi Montage” samples the detuned gloom of Kurt Cobain’s “Burn The Rain” and patiently overwhelms it with daybreaking synths and a bright harmony vocal from frequent collaborator Mr. Hudson. It’s a perfect capstone to a complex record, a scene from a salvation in-process, with hope and regret slowly tumbling together and leaving their mark on one another. It’s hard-won; Cudi’s voice is scuffed with the presence of weakness when he raps about being “stronger than I ever was.” And the three of them fall into the finish together, Cudi humming plaintively along while Mr. Hudson entreats them both to “stay strong.” “Lord, shine your light on me, save me, please,” Kanye sings. His voice is low and a little raw, and it’s mic’d just a little too close. It’s hard to say whether he can tell.