Kid Cudi fancies himself a Serious Artist™, which in the pop sphere means he doesn’t understand art and is really bad at it. A recent appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show (no, seriously) is instructive in his total lack of understanding things. In clear defiance of reason, Aaron Paul’s co-star in a plotless racing video game adaptation appeared on national television in a Green Day t-shirt, hoodie, and carefully ripped jeans to tell us all what’s wrong with hip-hop.
Prompted by Arsenio to look into the camera and solemnly explain what hip-hop “needs”, Cudi said “I think the braggadocio, money, cash, hoes thing needs to be deaded,” to enthusiastic studio audience applause. This painfully rehearsed brand of Tipper Gore-style concern trolling has been the defining outsider critique of hip-hop for going on four decades and relies on its own history of narrowly focused racism to disregard an entire artform—see: NWA, “Cop Killer,” Chief Keef, and everything in between.
While arguments over what is and is not and is maybe but also not really hip-hop are dumb, that’s not even what Cudi’s doing in his pursuit for Serious Artist cred. What Cudi’s doing is making a case against hip-hop as art in a bullheaded attempt to remold it in his own image. Cudi even goes so far to claim that, if not for the imagined moral fortitude that keeps him from rapping about his collection of ridiculous cars, there “would be no Drake.” A statement rooted in understandable jealousy since Cudi is an off-brand Drake, minus the paradoxical joie de vivre and talent. The jealousy is made only more human by their shared lineage.
While he hasn’t and won’t ever enjoy the same recognition of his progeny, Phonte of Little Brother and the Foreign Exchange offers a brand of everydude rap/R&B synthesis that is the testament your favorite Sad Dudes are reading from. Some five years before anyone had heard of Drake or Cudi, Little Brother’s “The Listening” featured Phonte’s sudden emergence as a nuanced realization of the Serious Artist; someone concerned with and tortured by the audience’s expectations:
Trying to get pressed on vinyl cause muh'fuckers buy your CD
But turn around don't even know your song titles
Like track 2 is hot, and track 6 is long
Ain't even listening, I'm hoping I get through to y'all
This push-pull dynamic between intensely personal, lived-in confession and the resulting existential detachment is familiar to anyone listening to anything that falls under the malleable rap/R&B umbrella. In four lines, Phonte bristles against the listener while hoping for a deeper connection. There is a real sadness to Phonte’s oeuvre because it prizes this personal specificity over the obfuscation of generalities. And then Kid Cudi offers shit like this:
Hate what I see, hate what I see
I'm over it, I need me some change
Something to feel good
Get me on the level, hmm, hmm
No no, no need to cry, no need to cry
You straighten up, you're such an adult
Pay all your bills, yet you are a zombie
Note how Cudi hates what he sees, but doesn’t establish what it is he’s seeing. Furthering his dedication to threadbare narrative, Cudi wants…. something…. to make him…. feel..... good. This is bland nonsense that somehow mutates into insulting the listener with an Adbusters slogan. They are lyrics that skip cause and go straight to effect. It reads like a suburban goth’s first stab at prose, but is actually a clip from “Going to the Ceremony,” the second track off Cudi’s recent Satellite Flight: The Journey to Mother Moon. That he sing-spits these lines in a grating mumble-mush cadence doesn’t help other than to obfuscate the bullshit.
@drewmillard "turn off this migos & put my pandora station on" - kid cudi to my friend who recently photographed him lulz— Pico de Gallo (@speakz) March 26, 2014
The preceding track is “Destination: Mother Moon.” It opens a mostly failed album in fine form. What begins as a tribute to Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to John Carpenter’s The Thing ends up ornamented by sly and no less dark 80’s dance-pop touches. Cudi doesn’t say a word. It’s one of his best efforts, showcasing his feel for subtle, atmospheric production flourishes, allowing them to go untrampled by his clumsy, meaningless lyrics. Unintentionally, the album’s stark contrasts make a thorough case for Cudi as an electronic artist, or at least someone operating outside the idiom of “hip-hop.” This is the guy who’s going to tell us what’s wrong with all these hip-hopping cash money characters.
He may or may not know the buttons that he’s pushing, but Cudi’s pushing them nonetheless and doing so to elevate himself above his peers, despite the fact that he’s looking at a one hot album every ten year average. To get around that, Cudi is using a bizarro take on black respectability politics to present himself as an artificially authentic example of hip-hop. He snatched the carrot of respect dangled by biased outsiders and is now holding the carrot up as proof of his superiority—Cudi wants to be perceived as one of The Good Ones, but doesn’t seem to get or care about what he’s giving up in the trade. The irony being that it all comes off as a smarmy performance of the same braggadocio he’s oh so bravely fighting against.
Now, Cudi did just drop an occasionally tolerable surprise album that hasn’t quite matched the Beyoncé singularity, so maybe he’s just pandering for buys to a national audience that doesn’t know much of anything about him. However, that doesn’t change any of what he said, nor does it change his avarice for acclaim that he doesn’t deserve. Peep the shit-eating grin he’s flashing through the whole interview and it becomes clear he’s playing one game against another.
Regardless, hip-hop isn’t about making white people comfortable and that’s what Cudi is doing. His motivations don’t really matter. The desperation underlying his feigned martyrdom can be seen in how Cudi frames his personal history of mental illness as the basis for a lameass strawman.
The strawman is basically Kid Cudi, a young dude who is sad a lot and thinks art exists to make him feel better about being sad a lot. The idea that no rappers register with this demographic is readily disproven by everyone from Childish Gambino to Earl Sweatshirt to Kanye West—if you’re young and depressed, mainstream rap already offers the safe harbor that Cudi presupposes to be absent. This eludes Cudi because he seems to think rap’s ideal form is bespoke afterschool special—the sort of preachy pablum that devalues specificity and honesty in favor of broad messaging, which is precisely the form that plays to Cudi’s shallow lyrical style. For all the worth he invests in being a Serious Artist, Cudi can’t even deal with just being an artist.
While Cudi’s influences and peers readily navigate that dynamic, Cudi prefers his own kind. It’s no coincidence that of course he’s collaborated with Haim, MGMT and Ratatat—all modern standards for well-crafted, catchy music that its most ardent defenders elevate to high art. Making inconsequentially fun music is a vital tradition, but there is an obvious difference between Daft Punk and Kraftwerk. The preening, yowling pretense of Cudi’s hip-hop criticisms reveal Cudi’s quite profitable place on the spectrum. Still, Cudi wants a better deal, fuck art.
Part of the present deal is that people don’t have to be into whatever you’re selling. Unlike most, Cudi’s been lucky enough to find his audience—a rabidly annoying mob of folk who invest imagined meaning into Cudi’s hollow lyrics. There’s a defense to be made of his talents as a producer, but talk to a hardcore Cudi fan (suggested mob name: Kid Lovers) and you’ll get a searing defense of his half-assed love affair with pointless concept albums and meandering self-exploration. Go back to “Day ‘n’ Nite,” Cudi’s debut single, and it becomes clear that he’s staunchly opposed to his own artistic maturation.
I toss and turn, I keep stress in my mind, mind
I look for peace but see I don't attain
What I need for keeps, this silly game we play...play
Now look at this
Madness the magnet keeps attracting me, me
I try to run, but see I'm not that fast
I think I'm first, but surely finish last, last
That’s the opening verse and Cudi wastes no time establishing that he’s not well, but can’t be bothered to establish why. This is fundamentally bad writing and his fans either don’t get that or project their own meaning onto the monolithic dry erase board that is any Kid Cudi song. Sure, everyone’s entitled to their taste, but modern hardcore fandoms are bizarre in their capacity for rapidly mobilized militant solidarity and Cudi’s is no exception. The ongoing blind defense of Morrissey is a convenient lens for seeing the depths this can reach.
Cudi has an army and that’s not enough for him, which is fine, but becomes tiresome once it’s used as fuel to write off the artform that enabled his success. While Cudi’s willingness to speak about his battle with depression and suicide is admirable, he seems to think doing so puts an onus on the public to appreciate his music. The Serious Artist cannot believe his art is the problem, and he never will.
Tomas Rios listens for punchlines, delivery, and cadences. He's on Twitter - @TheTomasRios