Monday, February 28, 2011

9. Album Review: Kid Cudi-"Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager"

The crumpled effect makes the music better. 

     When I first started listening to Kid Cudi, I ran into a dilemma. Hip-Hop has been straying further and further away from its roots within the past decade, diluted by the encroaching presence of other genres and ideologies. This is to be expected. Hip-Hop is an ever-changing abstraction. It is reaching out now, innovating new styles and sounds, some of which hit and some of which miss. But as I listened to Cudi's debut album Man on the Moon: The End of Day and then this sophomore effort, I had to ask myself, "is this Hip-Hop?" Because although many are touting Cudi's work as a fresh take on the genre, the music itself is nothing new, but its application to Hip-Hop must seem quite unorthodox to the general public. For although this approach may be viewed as original to the casual listener, many heads are already well-versed in what Cudi has to offer. However what Cudi does well, is create a fusion of Rap, Rock, Electronic and Pop, but can I label something as Rap or Hip-Hop if it is lacking certain fundamental characteristics of that genre, while overtly promoting the characteristics of others?
     I realize that I have no business defining what Hip-Hop is. No one person does. It's a cultural manifestation, steered by the collective, and for every mediocre artist gaining popularity, there's usually a true virtuoso waiting in the wings, appreciated by a limited audience. "But where does Kid Cudi fit into all of this?", I wondered.
     I reasoned that the rudimentary facet of Hip-Hop music is the emcee. An emcee traditionally has a style, a voice, a clear message, a point to make, and above all, is a rhyming wordsmith. This honorific has been distorted over time, and many popular artists do not fit this description. This is my hierarchy of emcees.

The Top Rung
The realm of great emcees, whom have established themselves as innovative masters of their craft and are supreme lyrically, stylistically, and in terms of flow and substance.

The Upper Rung
Emcees who range from above average, to fantastic in terms of content, wordplay/creativity, or technical skill, but do not contain the whole package, or have fallen off in years past.

The Middle-Lower Rung
Artists who are obviously making an attempt to convey a message, but may not possess "the right stuff", have not yet been fully-realized/reached their potential (Odd Future), or are inconsistent with their material. Or haven't released an album in 3 long years (Lupe, soon to be remedied).

The Bottom Rung
Rappers who speak on nothing of consequence, choosing to focus instead on materialistic exploits, or lack the wherewithal/mental faculties to comment on or describe their existence. 

     It is my belief that Kid Cudi rests comfortably within the Middle-Lower rung. Musically, he is highly capable of crafting lush beats, strong song structures and catchy hooks. Lyrically, Cudi is not a great emcee, and probably never will be. Partially because of his weak grasp on technique and seemingly loose commitment to "rapping" as a whole, but also due to his chosen subject matter; himself. Not that personal or emotionally sensitive rappers are intrinsically inferior. That is far from the truth, as most of the greatest tracks are those that are introspective, relatable and emotive. But from what I've heard, Cudi's expression of himself and his problems lack any creative execution, or compelling storytelling methods, making it difficult to care about such a one-dimensional character. His lyricism is neither complex, nor evocative enough to sufficiently cash the checks he's attempting to write, which ends up feeling like Cudi is overplaying a supposedly sympathetic persona that appears to suffer from very little lasting drama in his life. 
     But enough of this. More importantly, how is his latest album, sonically and lyrically, and in what direction does it point for Cudi in the future? 

1. Scott Mescudi Vs. The World 
     If there's one thing this song does, it's create atmosphere. The beat drops, bouncing along with Cudi's choppy flow. Solid introductory lyrics, except for the whining of "these are facts from a winner". Cee-Lo's falsetto chorus is nice, but after replaying this tune only a few times, I'm already burnt out on that hook. The best parts are the slight variations on the beat and the distant wails in the background. 
Memorable lines:
"And guided you all with a smile up on my face
As the sun kisses us on the foreheads gently
Gentle with the drugs, heavy with the love
And my speeches onstage rock mountains from a club" 
    This song is corny. The monotonous, ugly piano chords and droning guitar bog down what sounds like a tone deaf Cudi trying to yodel. And what's with this "big brother" business? I know his fan base consists of a young demographic, but surely they're not looking for a brother-like role model in Cudi. 

Fuck naw. 

     The "where'll you be for the revolution" line is cringe-worthy. And I've listened to Oasis. I can handle some tacky shit. While we're on it, what revolution is he referring to? You can't pique my interest with a buzzword like "revolution", which triggers all sorts of bloody and dramatic fantasies in my mind, and then not elaborate on it. Apparently the working title for this album was Cudder: The Revolution of Evolution, so maybe there's some vague brainchild at work here, neglected and only partially realized. Cudder: The Revolution of Evolution. What a name. Thank God good taste prevailed with Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager. 
Memorable lines:
Not a one. This is straight filler. 
3. Don't Play This Song
     Mary J. Blige! Remember her recent song "Just Fine"? That's a fun song. This isn't. Cudi sounds like a modern day Little Drummer Boy with his "ri-ri-ri-right ri-right ri-right ri-right" mumbles. He's going on about his penchant for lighting up and its various detractors, but I think that he's overestimated the amount of stock I have invested in his getting high. Either way, he just don't curr, he smoke that kush anyway. Cudi suffers no fools. 

Believe it or not, this is supposed to be interesting.

Memorable lines:
The inexplicable: 
"Cudi's lame, wearing a kilt
Must be gay, let's keep it chill" 
4. We Aite
     This is just Cudi demonstrating that he can fill a minute and a half with absolutely nothing wherever he wants in this album, whenever he wants. The "pop" sound he keeps making with his mouth at the end of "make your mind up" is far more maddening than it should be. 
Memorable lines: 
Why not? All of it. All three lines. Stellar. 
5. Marijuana 
     Here we are. Another weed banger, but at least it's got Cudi sounding passionate about something. His wacky flow is at its best here, for the one verse anyway, staccato rapping/singing over a dreamy piano loop. A nice chilly beat by Dot da Genius.
Memorable lines:
"My soul's been fed tonight
Everything that I choose 
Still can't forget Grey Goose
Converse covered with mixer juice"
6. Mojo So Dope
    The first verse isn't exactly fresh air for bursting lungs. We have Cudi insisting on his authenticity, something which he argues other rappers lack, with relative coherence, explicitly calling out the rest of his 2009 XXL freshmen class (Curren$y, Wale, Asher Roth, B.o.B). This seems pretty ballsy. And if he considers this group his primary competition, maybe that explains the apparent low standards he's operating on. The instrumental is working with a graveyard shift; a basic beat accompanied only by sparse piano chords and a caroling sample from the Choir of Young Believers, of all things. In the second verse, Cudi states "I live through words, not metaphors, so I passed to be the rest of the freshmen", and I understand what he's trying to say. He's commenting on the prevalent usage of metaphors as a lyrical technique, probably in direct reference to many popular rappers and their punchline-style songwriting. Although I agree to an extent, as I've never been fond of hashtag lyricism, which usually incorporates criminally poor puns and weak associations, I feel like Cudi's assertion here rings hollow. He's aiming towards a more poetic style of rhyming, I get it, but perhaps no one has told Cudi that metaphors are literary devices, and are usually pivotal to conveying elaborate themes and emotions to your audience. Because even though they've recently been abused, there's no reason to boycott their utilization entirely, thereby resulting in Cudi's clear commitment to elementary-level poetry. He seems so busy trying to convince me that he "lives this shit", it's as if he forgot to make this shit interesting or impressive.
Memorable lines:
The mildly touching:
"Some things will never be the same
Wish that I could tell my brother
Something for some motivation to get him out that gutter
He's leaving behind a family and a mother"
7. Ashin' Kusher
     Dumb pun, but this beat starts off HOT, aided by a menacing bass line, which is unpredictable in its attendance. Cudi isn't rapping here so much as ranting, like he's had too much to drink before stepping up to the mic, just spilling guts with literally no attention to rhyme or reason. A nice, fresh chorus.
Memorable lines:
"Doin' what I need, hater, I am a-okay
How many times must I tell 'em, 'we don't care what people say'?"
Aw, he totally does. Like a mini-Kanye.
7. Erase Me
    Couldn't be more out of place. For being on what's supposed to be something of a concept album, Erase Me has no contextual relevance whatsoever. The tracks before and after are nothing like this, in terms of sound or content. It's like having a Mayhem song on a Michael Bolton's Greatest Hits album.

Nobody wins. 

     I don't mind Cudi's voice, especially as this feels like an Alternative-Rock song, a genre that doesn't require a singer to be particularly skilled in order to get its appeal across. Kanye West comes in with a really silly verse. I shouldn't like the chorus on principle, but I'm a sucker for A-E-F#-D chord progressions.
Memorable lines:
All I heard were the pops of bubblegum. Maybe:
"She said 'Hi, I'm Aria'
No, you an angel, you wave Hi to Aaliyah"
That's goofy. And just makes me want to listen to Aaliyah.
9. Wild'n Cuz I'm Young
    I'm almost positive that the bass thumps here are sampled from Isaac Hayes's "Walk On By". Listen to this song, and then B.I.G.'s "Warning", and tell me that doesn't sound similar. Maybe I'm wrong. But it's close. Makes for a wonderful foreboding sound, anyway. The theme here is Cudi being out on the town, doing errands and "raging", providing more insight into his drug use and methods of coping, something I was definitely feeling deprived of. I realize the album's mood is supposed to be dark, depressive and somber, but it loses its initial gravity with so many of the songs revisiting the same ground.
Memorable lines:
"Ice is strong and the whole crew gone
Done off the better, very celebratory
Fuck the blogs, I'ma tell my story"
10. The Mood
     This one's romantic in a one-night stand kind of way. The mentioned "creepers" must be inexperienced when it comes to their namesake if they're in a position to see their reflection in the sunglasses Cudi's wearing at night. This song's actually pretty boring. No hook, no note-worthy lines. It creates a mini-narrative involving Cudi and a lady friend he's acquired, something on which I wish he had extrapolated. Instead, the efforts to create a vision of some nightmarish, antisocial club scene just strike me as dull and contrived. "Smack My Bitch Up" did more for that theme, and that was mostly instrumental. Or maybe I just feel that way because of the music video.
Memorable lines:
"Maybe a French twang to it
Her tongue was quick, she was French, I knew it
A lovely foreigner, foreign to racism
She like that young nigga vibe
My brown skin, my shagged out 'fro" 
     The St. Vincent sample makes this song. Without it, and Cage's verse, MANIAC would just be more of the same. What Cudi needs to come to terms with is that his behavior is extremely common, and just because it's easy to identify with doesn't exactly mean it makes for captivating listening. It's like listening to someone who's not your friend talk about their petty, gloomy thoughts.

Oh, be quiet DMX. Meth is a baby drug anyway. 

     Despite this, the instrumental is sick and Cage provides an imaginative metaphor.
Memorable lines:
"I wear my shades at night so I can look in the abyss
I see something in nothingness, if you can picture this
Put black holes in my jar lid, I climb the wall
I'm too high now, I'll die from the fall"
12. Mr. Rager
     Cudi introduces his Mr. Rager alter-ego again. However Cudi's requests for his other personality to "tell us where you're going, tell us where you're headed" are made in vain, as Mr. Rager seems shy and doesn't open up throughout the song's length. Damn. I could really do with some conflict or drama right about now.
Memorable lines:
13. These Worries
     Ah, maybe now we'll get a glimpse into Cudi's psyche, instead of these vague indications towards sadness and depression we've been getting fed. And we do. His budding alcoholism, high-fiving of sinners, and the strained relationship he has with his mother. All universal problems. Yet, the small amount of pity I am able to pool for him dissolves when he swears "I'm tired of motherfuckers sayin' that they worry about me, when in fact they probably never gave a fuck about me". Shit. You're right, Cudi. No one cares about you. Now stop bitching.
Memorable lines:
The sound effect of Cudi doing bumps before he starts a verse, and the following nasal delivery. Who needs Auto-Tune when you got the drip?

Hm. I stand corrected.

14. The End
     Nicole Way's exhausted-sounding chorus really grew on me. GLC drops a passable verse, but is completely overshadowed by Chip Tha Ripper, who sounds possessed by an early Scarface, or Breeze Brewin' from the climax of A Prince Among Thieves. Cudi comes on strong, but falters out by again exhibiting that he has little, if any, concept of meter, pacing or syllabic context. Listen to the song, and you'll know what I'm talking about.

Spiritual healer? Lauryn Hill you are not, Cudi. 
Memorable lines: 
"Just ran to your crib and popped your daughter in the spleen
I'll be there in twenty minutes, but it only took fifteen 
We wasn't that tight, but cool enough for me to hit the scene 
Not knowing that this was all a set up
Secretly they want me wet up" 
15. All Along
     This song is where it's at. The ambiance that Cudi's been striving for this whole time feels most realized here. The lyrics are appropriately simple, but the content actually comes across as heartfelt and bona fide. The beat is familiar, but the reverberating ivories and murky strings do wonders for the atmosphere near the tail end of this album. 
Memorable lines: 
"I don't want what I need
What I need hates me" 
16. GHOST!
     The beginning moans made by Cudi sound like something he'd do to warm up his voice before coming in with a verse, not like part of a piece of music that you'd want people to listen to. The sample from The Freak Scene's "My Rainbow Life" is goddamn horrifying, and not in a fitting "ghostly" manner, but more in a grating and painful one. Cudi preaches on his individuality and optimistic thinking that things "do come around, and make sense eventually", which sounds terribly inconsistent and out of character after spending an entire album poorly conveying his emotional distress. Maybe this is his light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe this is him trying to sprinkle some hope over his audience.
Memorable lines:
The three seconds of silence at the end. 
17. Trapped In My Mind
     Jesus Christ. Maybe Cudi just clicked the Shuffle option in his iTunes because he couldn't decide on an ordered track list. Although he seems to become content with his addictive, dejected mentality over the course of this song, that doesn't exactly provide the listener with a sense of closure. What if I had gotten really attached to Cudi over the last hour, only to find that he's leaving this album exactly as he entered it; seemingly apathetic and defeated? It doesn't feel like he's progressed throughout this "story", which I don't think is intentional. It's not like he's highlighting his inability to grow, which exacerbates the depth of his downward spiral. Instead it feels like he's made some bullet points about his problems and then promptly takes on a "fuck it" attitude and walks away. The beat and hook are pleasant.
Memorable lines:
"When I see what is so, I know I am not looking
Yeah, I like to pay my own back
It's a gift and a curse, since my birth I'm in a prison
Thought I'm happy right where I'm at" 
Worth the time? 
     It's hard to be too critical of Kid Cudi, because I don't feel like he really wants to rap. He sounds bored and ill at ease on the mic, something which ruins the album for me. He's almost always outclassed by his guest artists, and seems more at home with his traditional pop ventures. I can't help but feel like Cudi's simply hopped on the bandwagon as a "dark, edgy, unstable" artist, but fails to properly express his issues. He drinks. He does cocaine. He's sad. This is all explicitly stated, allowing no room for interpretation or figurative wordplay. And given the mildness of his problems, I'm not sold on how harrowing his reality supposedly is.

     The most frustrating part, is that I can tell Cudi has chops in the studio. He can obviously put together a decent song because there are definitely a few solid ones present here, with a lot of potential. I'm interested in what his next project will be, but after listening to this mostly lackluster excuse for a concept album, I kind of wish he'd stick to guest spots and production. And if you're already a Kid Cudi fan and enjoy his music, that's great, because he's superior to a good bit of what's out there. But the thing of it is, is that there's nothing I can get from Kid Cudi that I can't get better elsewhere, and so for now, I'm content with keeping one eye on him and nothing more.

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