The Week In Pop

The Week In Pop: Kid Cudi, The Loneliest Stoner

By Chris DeVille / February 27, 2014

Even though he parted ways with G.O.O.D. Music last year, Kid Cudi will probably never make it all the way out of Kanye West’s shadow. Many of us first encountered Scott Mescudi as Kanye’s foil on 2008’s triumphantly dour “Welcome To Heartbreak,” and Cudi’s ambition to transcend the confines of hip-hop has long mirrored that of his mentor. Last year’s Indicud, his first album after cutting ties with Kanye’s label, was his own breed of beautiful dark twisted fantasy, a lengthy, ominous, star-studded treatise on his conflicted relationship with celebrity. The scope was huge — 70 minutes, 18 tracks — and the guest list was impressive, with everyone from Haim to Kendrick Lamar to Michael Bolton popping up. Cudi piled on the layers, building vast temples of sound filled with dense clouds of marijuana smoke. The similarity to Kanye’s post-exilic opus ran deep enough that Cudi even successfully repurposed a prominent indie-rock beardo’s pre-existing song, flipping Father John Misty’s “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” into a lofty rap song like Kanye did with Bon Iver. But unlike My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or other recent cinematic rap albums such as Drake’s Take Care, Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, and Danny Brown’s Old, Indicud was a chore to endure. The album was built from plenty of enjoyable component parts, but they added up to an hour-plus of bleak sameness. Pressing through to the finish was like slogging through quicksand. If there was direction, it was inward, toward Cudi’s eternal weed-addled battle with his haters. Cudi comes off a lot less self-aware than Kanye, and his me-against-the-world tantrums are a lot less compelling because they’re never compounded by pangs of self-doubt. Still, Indicud was definitely beautiful, dark, twisted, and fantastical, and it was most certainly his.

Does that make Satellite Flight: The Journey To Mother Moon, released this week Beyoncé-surprise style, Cudi’s Yeezus? Not really. There are some similarities: Satellite Flight is streamlined to just 10 tracks and boasts a far shorter guest list than Cudi’s previous outing; there’s a horn part in one song, “Return Of The Moon Man (Original Score),” that resembles the titanic TNGHT-sampled “Blood On The Leaves” drop; it further isolates Cudi from the hip-hop mainstream; the title is its own special personalized strand of preposterous. But this new release is less vengeful than Indicud. Cudi’s persecution complex is mostly internalized here, although there is a song called “Too Bad I Have To Destroy You Now” in which he wonders why his haters won’t look him in the face and ends up wistfully moaning, “Thought you were my brother/ Thought you were my sister/ Thought you were my homey.” That’s an outlier. On the whole, Satellite Flight is more of a sob story than a spleen vent. The Kanye LP it syncs best with is 808s & Heartbreak.

If Indicud was the sound of Cudi yelling jeers from his castle, here he mostly retreats to the interior to brood privately and plot his escape into outer space. He’s back to the moon motif that loosely guided his first two LPs and will guide his next — Satellite Flight was originally planned as an EP in advance of next year’s Man In The Moon III, but Cudi doesn’t know how to do short. This time around, he’s not blasting off to explore a new frontier so much as running from his problems. Cudi’s first words on the album are “Drinking again, drinking again, bottles up/ I’m in it to win, with none of my friends, just me and this bottle.” On “Internal Bleeding,” he repeatedly sings, “The heart is leaking out” before declaring plainly that it hurts. “No one wants a troubled boy, so it seems,” he intones over a single guitar on Satellite Flight‘s whimper-not-bang closer “Troubled Boy.” Amidst all that moping, the overly literal, weirdly specific sex jam “Balmain Jeans” (“Can I come inside your vortex?”) feels utterly displaced, especially when Raphael Saadiq shows up to remind us how ill-suited Cudi’s talents are for sensual seduction. When Cudi claims “I’ve been feeling invincible” on the title track, he’s unconvincing, especially when he follows that up by taking a page from Doc Brown and suggesting the listener come along with him “where there aren’t any roads.” Space is the only place where he can get a fresh start.

Lord knows he needs one. Cudi’s unique talent has been obvious since “Day N Nite” — a song that laid the groundwork for the moody, sing-songy rapper era as much as T-Pain, 808s & Heartbreak, or Drake’s So Far Gone — but he continually squanders it on impenetrable music. His potential remains evident throughout Satellite Flight. The production is typically astounding, mostly space-age synthetic psych soundscapes that effectively conjure his favored lunar imagery, and his mush-mouthed blues singer baritone remains one of pop’s singular and evocative instruments. Unfortunately, only Kanye seems to know how to use that instrument effectively. As a guest on some of Mr. West’s most shadowy songs — “Welcome To Heartbreak,” “Gorgeous,” “Guilt Trip” — Cudi is a revelation. He’s the manifestation of Kanye’s existential pain, the voice inside Kanye’s head. But listening to a Cudi album feels like trapping yourself inside that inner monologue for all eternity, with minimal variation and no evidence for sympathy. The steep difference in quality between his solo work and his guest appearances is enough to make me think Cudi’s problem isn’t that he’s stuck in Kanye’s shadow, it’s that he’s ventured too far outside Kanye’s shadow. He’s at his best when he’s embodying Kanye’s shadow.

Perhaps Cudi should stick to being a sidekick: Nate Dogg as scrawny, sad-eyed sci-fi geek. (That scenario doesn’t appear likely given Cudi’s thoughts in this Complex interview.) He could do well in the film-scoring business a la Daft Punk, Trent Reznor, or RZA; Satellite Flight‘s four instrumentals are easily the highlights, uncluttered by Cudi’s miserablist mewling. He recently gave up drinking due to liver damage; maybe he ought to quit smoking weed too in search of the brisk energy that propelled “Day N Nite.” One way or another, he needs to shake things up because even though he’s a singular figure in hip-hop (if you can even call his music hip-hop anymore), he’s singular largely for the wrong reasons. The man we first knew as “the lonely stoner” has become an expert at constructing musical walls around himself. Like his former collaborators MGMT, Mr. Solo Dolo keeps building dense, difficult drug music, but he offers even fewer easy entry points and a less colorful palette, and he subjects his listeners to an obnoxiously one-dimensional sorrow. Granted, somebody out there must identify with this stuff — Satellite Flight hit #1 on the iTunes album chart this week — but Cudi himself doesn’t even seem to be enjoying it. Personally, I’d like to interact with his lighter side again. He claims to be in a good place now, so here’s hoping Satellite Flight is a final purge of the darkness. Enough with the nite; how’s Cudi sound in the day?

CHART WATCH

Thanks to a visit from my five-year-old nephew, I finally saw Frozen over the weekend. Thus, I understand why the animated Disney flick’s soundtrack continues to dominate the albums chart. The Oscar-nominated “Let It Go” is infectious, yes, but so is the rest of it. It’s kidnip. Frozen reclaimed the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 this week from Eric Church’s no-rules country-rock masterstroke The Outsiders, which descends to #2 this week. As Billboard reports, that gives Frozen the most weeks at #1 for a movie soundtrack (five) since Titanic‘s astounding 16 weeks in 1998. Frozen moved 89,000 copies, while Church sold 74,000, a 74 percent drop from last week. Top 10 debuts include country singer Cole Swindell’s self-titled effort at #3 with 63,000 and rockers Issues’ self-titled album at #9 with 22,000.

The bigger news this week is on the Hot 100, where Pharrell’s “Happy” finally surpassed Katy Perry and Juicy J’s “Dark Horse” just in time for the Oscars and the release of Pharrell’s G I R L on Sunday and Monday respectively. Billboard notes that this is Pharrell’s first solo #1 after hitting the top as a featured artist three times previously: Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” in 2004, Ludacris’ “Money Maker” in 2006, and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” in 2013. Elsewhere near the top of the singles chart, John Legend’s “All Of Me” becomes his first top 10 hit with a #4 finish.

TRACK CITY

Shakira – “Empire”
Has a wordless orgasm sound ever functioned as the chorus to a big-budget blockbuster pop song before? And has anyone ever painted their sexual delight in such grandiose terms as “And the stars make love to the universe/ And you touch me/ And I’m like, ‘Woooooooooo!'” Give me this instantly likable spectral sexcapade over the annoyingly persistent “Can’t Remember To Forget You” any day.

Ellie Goulding – “Beating Heart”
Last week I said I preferred Goulding in neon populist mode, and here she is with just such a single from the hotly tipped Divergent soundtrack.

Tove Lo – “Not On Drugs”
Pretty strange to hear a synthetic EDM-tinged pop song with a chorus about not being on drugs, but the inversion of the tired “your love is my drug” metaphor sure is working for me here.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Hey, some good PR for Chris Brown! [TMZ]
  • Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, One Direction, and Pharrell are all up for Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards. [Idolator]
  • Rihanna’s been in the studio with The-Dream, which usually turns out great. [Popjustice]
  • Also, RiRi’s next album is allegedly a concept album based on a cartoon. [Variety]
  • After spending 2013 dancing with naked women who weren’t his wife, Robin Thicke is getting divorced. [The Hollywood Reporter]
  • A posthumous Michael Jackson/Justin Bieber collab is coming soon to a mobile phone near you. [DigitalSpy]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME

SOUNDBOARDT.