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Four Tet - Live at Alexandra Palace London, 8th and 9th May 2019 Music Album Reviews

Kieran Hebden’s new live album reminds us that he is a stellar performer, not just a producer.
The British producer Kieran Hebden has one of the most distinctive signatures in electronic music. First, a gravelly drum machine; then, some jewel-toned synth pads; and, finally, a strip of harp or chimes or wordless cooing, unspooling like wrinkled ribbon.

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Kanye West/Kid Cudi - Kids See Ghosts Music Album Reviews

Kanye West/Kid Cudi - Kids See Ghosts Music Album Reviews
The psychic bond between Kanye West and Kid Cudi yields a spacious and melancholy album about brokenness—thoughts are fragmented, relationships are ended, and societal ties are cut.

He just turned 41, and Kanye West still craves nothing more than to make a big mess, plunge into it headfirst, and take us with him. This impulse unites him with his dragon-energy brother in the White House, who similarly revels in just saying it out loud to see how it feels. It must be intoxicating to open your mouth and say whatever occurs to you, knowing you will endure mild censure at worst before reaping your rewards. For Kanye, the rewards are already here: Despite being the least finished-sounding recording of his career, last week’s ye marked some of his biggest first-week returns in years; at one point, its seven tracks doubled as the seven most popular songs on Spotify. Big messes, it turns out, work for guys like him.

So here we are, in week three of the big mess he is currently making. After Pusha-T’s compact and sturdy Daytona and the hobbled and confused ye, we now have Kids See Ghosts, Kanye’s collaborative project with Kid Cudi. Three down, two to go, or so we tell ourselves, like beleaguered parents boarding a series of connecting flights with a small child. West has turned the album cycle into his version of Calvinball, jubilantly inventing rules while the rest of us hop along desperately in his wake.

Flail hard enough and long enough, though, and you will hit some targets. On Kids See Ghosts, the mess at least feels more purposeful, and the songs are the most intriguing ones to emerge from this Wyoming project thus far. Since 2013’s Yeezus, West has been testing the line between “daringly raw” and “unfinished,” but on Kids See Ghosts, he vigorously erases it. G.O.O.D. Music label boss Pusha-T assures us “the details is ironed out” on the album opener “Feel the Love,” a particularly poignant promise considering the track itself was delivered to all streaming partners mislabeled. It is an eerie arena in which to watch an Event Album unfold, one where the silences resound as deafeningly as the screams, where the props are missing or moved into place a beat too late.

A lot of the energy that ye seemed to be gasping for fills the lungs of this project, and it’s humbling to consider how much this material might have enlivened West’s own album. They aspire to the same frayed edge: cut-off stumps of song bits bleeding into the next. “You should quit your job to this,” West shouts on “Freeee (Ghost Town Pt. 2),” a continuation of “Ghost Town,” the emotional peak of ye. As he does on the original, he equates total numbness as freedom, and as a buzzing cello pecks at its tendons and the distorted drums smash into bone, you are left to contemplate the scary sort of freedom West prizes. It is the freedom of mania, of letting your mind gallop off its leash in as many directions at once. For anyone with personal experience with mania, there will be a pang of recognition in this exhilaration, as well as the understanding of how quickly the sensation curdles into another dead end.

The most powerful moments on Kids See Ghosts underline this freedom with a wistful bite, suggesting it comes with a lasting price. This is an album about brokenness—thoughts fragmented, relationships ended, societal ties cut. “Reborn” is the most unhurried and atmospheric music of this chaotic cycle, a long spacious breath of a drum track that opens onto one of West’s best verses in years. In it, he offers something close to a full explanation for his recent behavior: “What an awesome thing, engulfed in shame/I want all the pain/I want all the smoke/I want all the blame.” There is an emotional honesty, at least, to the admission that he is nakedly grasping for whatever oxygen the public will give him, no matter the contaminants he takes in along the way.

Hovering uneasily over the project, as it has over this entire Yeezy Season, is the specter of mental health. On the one hand, West has shown bravery in talking about his apparent bipolar diagnosis. But there is also danger, and potential stigmatization, in equating Kanye’s celebrity lawlessness—available only to him and those in his orbit—with mental health. Most people, after all, whatever their private struggles, don’t have the resources to stage their free falls into the arms of an entire industry built to placate them. Mental health, its effects on you, on those who love you: This is not a topic to be touched on lightly, and apart from scrawling his diagnosis on the cover of ye, there is a very real sense that he is simply bringing up these issues, not probing them.

One of the revelations of Kids See Ghosts is how Cudi emerges as a better angel, a concerned but empathic friend who provides emotional ballast. Cudi, of course, has a few years on West in acknowledging his struggles with mental health. “Keep moving forward,” Cudi sings gently on “Reborn,” adding, “peace is something that starts with me.” His presence feels calming, cooling. The two men have always been better together than apart, lending depth and weight to each other's on-record presences. Cudi’s presence girds West's wild energy with a melancholy that adds some highlight and shadow to the weightless cartoon West has offered us. Cudi’s always struggled with being two-dimensional on his own records, but here he brings a soul and depth that his mentor can't muster.

“Cudi Montage” even relocates a precious, nearly vanished quantity of Kanye’s music—empathy. The song samples Kurt Cobain’s “Burn the Rain,” a home-recorded scrap that was unearthed to soundtrack the 2015 documentary Montage of Heck. The movie was uneasy viewing, splitting the line between revelation and violation, and the music that wallpapered it felt intensely private, doodles that were meant for one mind, not the world. It is an oddly appropriate source for Kanye, a combination of ingenuity and bad taste that suits the man who sampled “Strange Fruit” so he could moan about child support.

In his verse, Kanye revisits the wages of cyclical violence—“Everybody want world peace until your niece gets shot in dome piece.” The images are well-worn, down to their grim details (“auntie crying on the concrete”), but it is one of West’s most sustained efforts to imagine someone else’s life since he gave us the “Public visitation, we met at Borders” scenario in “All of the Lights.” The verse concludes with a namecheck of Alice Johnson, the African-American woman whom President Trump pardoned on Kim Kardashian’s urging, just last week. Like everything else in this wildly unstable political moment, the pardon (and its mention in song) slides across a tilted stage filled with compromised actors. What remains solid is the song itself, which opens into a simple plea after the verse fades: “Lord shine your light on me; save me please.” For the first time in years, Kanye sounds at peace. Here he is, again, where he has always yearned to be: damned, on the brink of irredeemable, gazing directly into some abyss from which he could never climb out.

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