Kanye West and Kid Cudi are trying to escape their own ghosts in Kids See Ghosts. The recently-released collaborative album is brief with seven songs, as the pair searches for hope, healing, and peace in the face of darkness.
Following six tracks that explore themes from perseverance to redemption, Kids See Ghosts concludes with “Cudi Montage.” The final track’s brooding and ominous beginning set Cudi up for his redemptive plea as he begs God to save him. Then, everything changes — the melody becomes brighter, happier, lighter; Cudi and former GOOD Music labelmate Mr. Hudson harmonize soothing hums, with the former singing “Stay Strong” until it becomes a mantra.
What starts this track isn’t Cudi’s voice or West’s voice — but the dissonant and haunting guitar strums of the late Kurt Cobain, a sample from his song “Burn The Rain.”
That the Nirvana frontman is featured on the track — the conclusion to an album centered around two men addressing their respective mental illnesses — is no coincidence. Like West and Cudi, Cobain struggled with mental illness throughout his life and musical career and was one of the numerous factors that contributed to his suicide at the young age of 27. Although “Cudi Montage” ends with Cudi’s repeated affirmation of “Stay Strong,” it’s hard to forget Cobain’s somber guitar strums, a dreary cloud over Cudi’s luminous sun.
Cudi has been vocal about his struggles with mental health both on and off music, while West revealed that he has bipolar disorder on his recently-released album Ye (in an interview following Ye‘s release the rapper said he was diagnosed with the mental condition when he was 39). Since Kids See Ghosts‘ release, the two artists have been applauded for talking publically about their individual battles with mental illness.
Although rappers have addressed topics such as suicide and depression in their music for some time, mental illness is still something of a taboo subject. Rap’s relationship to Cobain is intertwined in these topics, with numerous rappers using him to highlight and speak on their own struggles with mental illness.
Cobain was allegedly diagnosed with bipolar disorder — also known as manic-depression — according to his cousin Bev Cobain, a registered nurse with a background in mental health. The National Institute of Mental Health defines bipolar disorder as “a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.”
Although he never talked about being bipolar — and rarely discussed his bouts with depression — Cobain dedicated most of his music to those subjects. “Lithium,” “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle,” and “Pennyroyal Tea.” The grunge singer articulated how these mental illnesses made him feel with a humor, poignancy, and wit that’s still being analyzed and discussed since his death in 1994.
In recent years, there has been a shift in the narratives surrounding Cobain. Where prior conversations were primarily centered around the late artist’s rock star mythos and if he was “The last rock star,” he’s now used as an entry point to discuss mental illness in the music industry. Rap seems to have followed in a similar manner. A number of Cobain references exist in rap, some simply rhyming his name with the word “Cocaine”; some using his self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head as a crude punchline. But most references highlight the toxicity of fame.
In 2013, A$AP Rocky rapped the following on his song “Phoenix”:
Bloody ink on my pen spelled suicide / Kurt Cobain even died cause you scrutinize.
That same year, Rocky discussed the line during an interview with MTV News.
Those are natural feelings that we all get sometimes. You hurt so bad and you’re going through so much pain to the point where sometimes you don’t even wanna live anymore,” the rapper said. “That’s how a lot of people think, whether we’d like to admit it or not and that’s all I was showcasing.
Rappers have not only referenced Cobain to speak on their own perils of fame but their battles with depression too.
“Maybe I’m crazy, addicted to pain / Maybe the cocaine destroyed my brain / Private conversations with Kurt Cobain / I’m drownin’ my fears in the acid rain,” Pastor Troy rapped on “Acid Rain (Tribute To Kurt Cobain)” back in 2005.
Cobain functions as a cautionary tale of succumbing to sheer hopelessness. Rocky and Troy’s use of the Seattle songwriter is more than a name drop — it’s a catalyst for examining and coping with their own darkness as well as a bittersweet tribute to a man who tried but couldn’t overcome his own demons.
Cudi has shown his admiration of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” lyricist as well throughout his music career. In 2011, the rapper visited Viretta Park in Seattle to pay respects to Cobain. The park, which is close to the home Cobain was found dead in, serves as an unofficial memorial for the late artist, with fans visiting it on the anniversaries of his birth and death. A year later, the Cleveland rapper covered “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” on his 2012 rock album WZRD. Originally written by blues and folk musician Lead Belly, Nirvana covered the song during their MTV Unplugged in New York performance in 1993.
Cudi has been vocal about his battle with mental illness for some time. He’s addressed it in an entire album — 2016’s Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ — as well as in interviews. Prior to the release of Demon Slayin’ Cudi took to Facebook where he revealed he was entering rehab after dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts.
There are similarities between Cudi and Cobain’s notes. When Cudi wrote “Ashamed to be a leader and hero to so many while admitting I’ve been living a lie,” it’s hard not to think about Cobain writing “The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I’m having 100% fun.”
In both of their letters, there’s a feeling of confusion and shame being expressed — that they feel the way they do even in the face of admiration from people across the world.
The parallels between the two are what makes “Cudi Montage” what it is. Cobain’s reference on here is subtle; Cudi doesn’t directly mention his name, nor is the sample taken from a well-known Cobain or Nirvana song. Choosing an obscure track created before Cobain’s fame reminds listeners of his humanity. In those brooding chords is a rawness that couldn’t be captured with a simple reference to the ’90s artist. By looping that guitar melody Cudi not only allows Cobain to speak for himself — he’s credited as a writer on the track — but creates a melancholy atmosphere that makes his declarative “Stay Strong” even more powerful.
But what makes “Cudi Montage” arguably the most touching tribute a rapper has ever given Cobain is how it reimagines what could’ve been for the late artist. That Cobain could’ve maybe been here today, playing alongside Cudi and West. That a cultural and generational exchange could’ve taken place — three artists whose own battles with mental illness has helped others battle their ghosts.
That Kids See Ghosts comes almost 25 years after the release of Nirvana’s final album In Utero isn’t a coincidence. Here, Cudi and West has taken on a role that Cobain was apprehensive about — being the voices of a generation. But both artists do this in remembrance of Cobain, “Cudi Montage” just as much an ode to the late rock musician than it is themselves.
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