By Pranav Trewn
Scott Mescudi is a messy figure in hip-hop history, having acquired a fervent cult of stardom over the last 10 years that doesn’t reflect the inconsistency of his creative output. A naturally gifted melodicist and expressive producer, but a laughably poor lyricist ham-fisted in his execution, Kid Cudi’s inflated sense of self-importance shamefully oversteps his genuinely prodigious instincts — such that he’ll tarnish impressive mood boards with amateurish couplets or unearned left turns. Unable to fashion his talents into something worthy of the collectively agreed upon canon, he’s remained a dark-horse anomaly siphoned to the sidelines of critical consideration.
But as far as the last decade in rap goes, Cudi’s shadow looms larger than all others, even moreso than titans like Kendrick, Drake, or Kanye — who all have increasingly become tastemakers rather than trendsetters, repurposing strains lying beneath the airwaves and blowing them up for widespread consumption, including those set by Cudi himself. He’s become something of the God particle for contemporary hip-hop: Having caught the eye of Kanye’s then-manager Plain Pat, the Cleveland rapper was brought on to do reference hooks on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3, before Kanye adopted him as his own muse for the most game-shaking period of his career, one that would go on to submerge the rest of rap music in a wave of soft palate pathos. He was a college dropout who made the most surprising and impactful entrance into hip-hop since The College Dropout.
Cudi didn’t originate the swaggering sad-sack archetype, but he distilled its ethos to the purest form and then rapidly saturated its influence. You can trace the lineage of cloud rappers shooting for the stratosphere and backpackers-gone-soul-searchers to Cudi’s arrival on the scene, but to go further back in following his own influences, you wind up with what feel like contradictory sources. André 3000, but also the Postal Service? Q-Tip, but also Biz Markie? Cudi didn’t quite sound like anyone else — blending a routinely oft-key lilt with cosmic jock trip-hop — which made even his off-putting quirks come across transfixing. He was as much spectacle as star.
His notoriety didn’t come from trying to emulate previous generations of iconoclasm in hip-hop, whether Outkast or Tribe or the Pharcyde. Rather, Cudi’s spiritual north star has always been Kurt Cobain. He’s not only previously covered the Nirvana frontman’s music on his own records, shouted him out lyrically, or most recently sampled his work for his own, but has also oriented his career around Cobain’s stare-into-the-void-until-one-of-you-flinches theatrics.
The core diversion in their approaches is Cudi’s unwavering insistence that he can overcome the darkness, which for him takes the form of persistent struggles with depression and suicide. In a 2014 interview with Arsenio Hall he said of the previous five years: “There wasn’t a week or a day that didn’t go by where I was just like, ‘You know, I wanna check out.’ I know what that feels like, I know it comes from loneliness, I know it comes from not having self-worth, not loving yourself.” In response, much of the catalogue Cudi’s built serves as reminders for himself and listeners to believe in themselves, to not let their momentary lapses undermine who they can still become.
Kid Cudi is the epitome of an artist who is always resetting, suggesting with each new project that “this is who I’ve always actually wanted to be.” He has a tendency to promise epic, supposedly career-defining projects that never materialize (“just wait until Man On The Moon III,” stans will assure against any skeptic), and to put weight on every stylistic change between albums as his finally coming into his own rather than simply exploring a new simultaneous interest. His career is one long “staaaaaaaaarting now,” both in his music and his mental health, the latter depicted across songs that announce answers without showing their work. It’s his insistence to overcome his shortcomings immediately that both marks his most destructive pattern and makes him so deeply relatable.
His perspective is a familiar one, of striving to become your best self but mistaking waves of momentary clarity for meaningful growth, set to music that is perfect for teenagers to imagine self-actualizing to. But even knowing better doesn’t diminish his resonance, because you never quite age out of impatiently waiting for “believing in yourself” to suddenly make you better. “I’m so reborn/ I’m moving forward,” Cudi offers on his recent collaborative album with another rapper prone to equating self-confidence with personal capacity. It’s a motto that we all like to believe whenever we reach the cathartic end of some coming-of-age film or the clock strikes midnight and instantly seems to absolve us of our flaws each New Year’s.
The impact of those simple messages of weightless resilience is why Cudi’s discography is held in such a high regard by the many who came to internalize songs like “Soundtrack 2 My Life” and “My World” as literally applying to them. Prior to Cudi’s breakthrough with Man On The Moon: The End Of Day, mainstream rap rarely embraced insecurities as intangible as solipsism and depression, but Cudi painted portraits of demons in broadly inclusive strokes, and then juxtaposed them with big-hearted choruses assuring his ability to move ahead. Kid Cudi popularized bedroom poetry by suggesting that emotional transparency was more important than clarity.
From the very start, Cudi never adopted a front that was anything other than his most baseline self. His debut mixtape A Kid Named Cudi was an inventive, homespun collection of warmly textured hip-hop. What made it a quiet revelation was how it pulled from a range of sources without ever overshadowing the personality at its center. First mixtapes often amount to rappers proving their talent by trying on styles from their favorite idols. A Kid Named Cudi took the obvious touchpoints that too inspired his contemporaries (Aquemini, N.E.R.D.), but utilized a peerless approach, repositioning the pace and energy of each track in befuddling but thrilling ways alongside the roving contours of his voice. Cudi’s music would go on to be known for different qualities (the exaggerated, immaculate humming, the unruly turns into actual grunge), but he’d never deviate from his insistence on idiosyncrasy that began even at the earliest stages of his career, the origin point for the rest of rap being granted license to get weirder.
The stars of today are entirely unrelated to those of the last century, but almost all are offspring of Cudi’s run at the onset of the 2010s. The opulent orchestration, spacious use of delay, and playful psychedelia of the Man On The Moon albums is a clear antecedent to the focus on atmosphere that A$AP Rocky and Rae Sremmurd have made their core tenants. Travis Scott, too, is a product of Cudi’s DNA — taking his “vibe-first, lyrics-last” approach to their most naturally hedonistic heights. Artists as wide ranging in approach as Kevin Abstract, OG Maco, and Lil Yachty have all publicly pledged to be devout followers of Cudi. The seeds of 808s And Heartbreak’s major ripple effect in hip-hop, prior dominated by the spastic acrobatics of mixtape-era Wayne and the last walls of clout-touting gangsta rap, began here with the introduction of the “lonely stoner” across 17 tracks of soft-focus sing-song.
The moody faction of SoundCloud’s embrace of a “sad-boy” aesthetic also rose from the popularity of the anesthetized insularity of songs like “Day N Nite,” which, with its flickering arpeggiation, is like the come down to the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” “Man On The Moon (The Anthem)” isn’t anthemic, but a near delusional coping mechanism to justify feeling out of place set to a sample of Nosaj Thing’s “Aquarium” — what you’d imagine that boy from the DreamWorks logo would sing to himself to keep sane within his solitary airspace. As Yachty recently placed his appeal in an episode of Beats1 dedicated to Cudi: “He was one of the only artists making the music at the time for like, emotional people going through something, or just taking dream journeys. Like, the real creative kids who are in the world.”
Another facet of Cudi’s impact came from the rapper’s creative approach in folding indie rock into boom bap. A Kid Named Cudi is full of beats inspired by the shallow crate digging of MP3 blogs, the kind of hat trick that would be borrowed to diminishing returns to launch the brief turn-of-the-decade careers of one-hit wonder rappers like Chiddy Bang. The selection on the mixtape didn’t read quite as “hip” as Drake’s later interpolating of Lykke Li or Kanye’s descent into Bon Iver’s cabin in the heavens. If anything, the mixtape’s reliance on big-name samples by Gnarls Barkley and Paul Simon suggests only a shallow interest in music at all.
Yet it’s representative of Cudi’s consistent saving grace as an artist: his ability to make the obvious sound profound by selling it wholesale. There’s no trace of self-consciousness with Cudi, which lets him belt out a myth-making hymn over Band Of Horses’ “The Funeral” with such amiable gusto that it imparts anew the same weight the original song brought to the millions who first turned it into an oversaturated mixtape staple. Cudi is a reminder that there’s power in clichés. Otherwise they wouldn’t have become clichés in the first place.
What doesn’t hurt is his natural gift for writing a hook, the essential function he’s served on the G.O.O.D. Music roster both for his original mentor and his various compatriots. He’d level up considerably in finessing earworms out of emotional pleas and densely layered murmuring on his major label debut, but A Kid Named Cudi is still a clear showcase for the hypnotic appeal of his chunky peanut-butter baritone. “Pillow Talk” is a PG sex jam that risks getting stuck in its own excessive sap, but hits its stride in Cudi’s reverberating come-ons to “just lay and talk.” “Embrace The Martian” is more spirited, a precursor to the strobe-lit Euro-pop of the Crookers later remix of “Day ‘N’ Nite,” with Cudi floating fast just above the surface.
The blunt force of his sincerity proved disarmingly charming, making emotional pulp seem compatible with the braggadocio of hip-hop in a way that would become Drake’s M.O. With Ratatat’s symphonic synthesizers and Cudi’s lullaby romanticism, “Heaven At Nite” felt like the first major undertaking by a rapper to build on André 3000’s The Love Below, itself an overly ambitious, overreaching collection of creative self-indulgence that’s seemingly been Cudi’s blueprint with each of his records. Does the fact that André 3000 continues to love Cudi say more about how far Cudi is going or how far Three Stacks has gone?
While completely serviceable, the few moments A Kid Named Cudi gets padded out with more traditional hip-hop constructions — like “CuDi Get,” a first-draft chest-puff obligatorily built on a Dilla loop — are entirely forgettable. That song is far less offensive than the formless experimentation that Cudi often gets derided for in his later catalogue, but also wouldn’t convince you that Cudi offers anything that hip-hop doesn’t already have covered in abundance. Yet polarizing albums like Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven or WZRD didn’t follow anyone else’s footsteps, but rather represent pure forays into the wilderness. Even at his ugliest, it’s impossible to look away, which is what gets Cudi closer to Cobain than just about any other songwriter since his passing.
Cudi’s transgressive instincts can prove tiresome for everyone rooting for him to focus in and finally pull together a classic album, but they’re also the reason he’s become the prime idol for a generation of rappers whose ambition isn’t to do something immaculate, but different — something entirely their own. You can see the fruits of that inspiration across the old head-rattling “hardly rap” denomination that has become our present day’s most fervently youth-beloved genre. Hip-hop has never felt like a freer space for artists to express themselves as themselves: chasing sounds entirely outside of the genre’s past, actively spitting on the implied prestige of its established canon, and specifically leaning into niche qualities that in years past might otherwise have left them culturally ostracized.
This code of creative disruption powers from the center rap’s most uncouth vanguard, but it is also shared by the few contemporary representatives of quote-unquote real rap left. Before his designation as the genre’s leading light by its most stern traditionalists, Kendrick Lamar denoted Cudi as one of his favorite artists, describing him as such: “It’s like a rebel sound…he ain’t trying to compromise for nobody.” The shared admiration from all walks of rappers speaks to just how radical Cudi’s presence really was upon his arrival. He never earned the “genius” designation that accompanied the artists who’ve cited him a formative influence. Instead, he proved a martyr, setting out on an uncharted path to make it easier for his peers to follow their own.