Kid Cudi has two platinum albums and dozens of stylistic children. He has credits on (and plaques from) some of the most beloved rap records of the millennium; he starred in an HBO show that people were excited about, stopped watching, then gravitated to as a post-cancellation cult classic. He’s a decade into his career and still feels, at least vaguely, like a kid––like someone who’s still trying to fit the pieces of a sound together in the perfect album-length form. He has fans who are rabid lifers and former fans who aged out. Is Kid Cudi a star? Well, it’s complicated.
Tonight, Cudi and Kanye West are going to gather more folks around another proverbial campfire to listen to the self-titled album from Kids See Ghosts, their joint venture together. It’s the first time they’ve linked up for a full album – or, you know, seven songs – since they started working in tandem a decade ago. For most of that ten-year period, the two have orbited one another, their sounds sometimes nearly aligning before taking sharp diversions. A certain subset of Kanye fan has clamored for this record for years; for Cudi, it represents a chance to get back in front of a rap mainstream over which he’s exerted significant influence, but to which he’s rarely felt central.
In 2008, somewhere in Hawaii, Kanye was wrecked by a failed engagement and his mother’s passing, but inspired by some of the moodier T-Pain work and by what No I.D. was cooking up for The Blueprint 3. He shirked the stadium gloss of Graduation and got to work on the songs that would become 808s & Heartbreak, a creative hard left that would sow skepticism with its lead single but go on to chart the course for several key strains of commercial rap over the next decade – and to directly birth Drake, the next decade’s biggest star. To help define the album’s sound, Kanye brought in Cudi.
The Cleveland native’s mixtape from that summer, A Kid Named Cudi, was omnivorously style- and genre-melding: he jumped from Outkast to Paul Simon, from Nosaj Thing to Band of Horses. He bragged about his “stoner charm.” He rapped, he sang. He was moody. He was presumably instrumental in making 808s what it would become: a half-rapped, half-sung bloodletting that traces the moods that follow a breakup, from deep depression to indignance to regret and back again.
It was a massive success. From there, Kanye interrupted Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs, exiled himself in France, and returned in 2010 with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his formalist mea culpa. Despite skewing closer to the style he debuted with in the mid-2000s, Kanye still tapped Cudi for one of the album’s signature moments: the defiant hook on “Gorgeous,” the album’s political center.
While Kanye was overseas, Cudi was embedding himself on the pop charts. “Day N Nite,” the minimalist single from A Kid, got a formal release in 2009 and went platinum three times over. A debut album, Man on the Moon: The End of the Day, was released through G.O.O.D. Music. It was a loose concept record narrated sporadically by Common (who, it should be mentioned, also shouts on Ray J on a song with a pre-Kardashian Kanye and suggests that a girl “get up on this conscious dick” on the album’s misguided single “Make Her Say“). It’s strange to hear Man on the Moon today; the production, especially the instrumentation itself––there are violins––is distinctly of its era, but Cudi’s somber, drawled-out singing and rapping, which swerves from earnest striding to clipped navel gazing, both have bled through to the present day.
Cudi has spent his solo career bristling at the thought of making conventional pop (or conventional songs in any genre, really), but he has a tremendous gift for it.
Cudi’s career since 2009 has been critically fraught. After a friendly enough reception for 2010’s Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager, Cudi’s rap music fell out of favor with mainstream audiences. He expressed a desire to branch out beyond hip-hop, but his rock side project, WZRD, was reviled, and three years ago he put out a sprawling, ill-fated rock album called Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven that did more to confuse than to intrigue.
But there are two fascinating arcs to follow with Cudi’s middle period. The first is probably predictable: by spiraling out from the spotlight, he’s garnered a cult-leader mystique with his fans, who watch each embryonic foray into a new genre with rapt attention. But the second is even more interesting. Cudi’s most recent album is Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’, an uneven, interminably long rap album from 2016. It sounds as if it comes from a different world than the first Man on the Moon – of course, it does. A number of beats could believably appear on Lil Uzi Vert tapes. What’s striking, though, is the realization of how Cudi’s unmistakable vocal style unifies this era with the last, his relatively straightforward efforts with his most bizarre tangents. The teen angst has calcified into something darker and more permanent, and still uniquely from one voice.
While Passion was a half-step toward where radio is today, it did little to put Cudi back into conversations among those outside his increasingly cultish following. He’s gone several album cycles without serious attention from mainstream audiences. With the still-magnetic Kanye drawing eyeballs in, Kids See Ghost will change that. Cudi has spent his solo career bristling at the thought of making conventional pop (or conventional songs in any genre, really), but he has a tremendous gift for it, and while the quality of Kanye’s solo music has wavered post-Yeezus, he’s been a reliably great editor for other artists. For someone who’s helped to shape the direction of 2010s hip-hop but has been made largely tangential to it, this is a chance to reestablish his status – possibly for good.
The pair’s well-worn chemistry bodes well. Cudi has made standout appearances on each of the last three Kanye albums: the morose “Guilt Trip” from Yeezus, the unfathomably memeable “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1” from The Life of Pablo, and on “Ghost Town,” from last week’s Ye. It’s possible Kids See Ghosts will be a welcome corrective to that last, disappointing album, but regardless of its quality, it will be a compelling contrast between the man at rap’s very center and his protégé who bolted to its fringes.