It’s been 11 years since Kid Cudi released his debut album Man on the Moon: The End of Day, a five-part dream sequence that cast his battle with mental illness in heroic terms. Cudi played the everyman night owl, awash in a cocktail of blunts, beer, and mushrooms. Ironically, his inability to parse his angst (“I’ve got some issues that nobody can see/ And all of these emotions are pouring out of me”) shaped the album’s compelling portrait of depression as an overwhelming and inscrutable force of nature. Today, Cudi is a mental health icon; there is an entire online hagiography celebrating his therapeutic powers and the key role he played in mainstream rap’s increased acceptance of depression, anxiety, addiction, and PTSD in the last decade.
Cudi’s latest album Man on the Moon III: The Chosen shows that he’s still something of a pop wizard who possesses the knack for both melodrama and earworm melodies. Once again, he sends a beleaguered dispatch from the center of an emotional typhoon. Once again, with his latest album Man on the Moon III: The Chosen, Cudi sends a beleaguered dispatch from the center of an emotional typhoon. “Feeling something, I can’t ignore my instincts,” he hum-sings on the opener “Tequila Shots,” “back just where I started, it’s the same old damaged song.” The Chosen comes full circle in another way—in its first half, Cudi cribs aggressively from his most commercially successful acolyte, Travis Scott. The pathos of the album’s bleakest five-song stretch, from “Another Day” to “Heaven On Earth,” becomes diminished in the distracting presence of Travis-esque ad-libs, cadences, Autotuned hum crescendos, and gothic minor-key synths.
The worst song on The Chosen is “Show Out” (featuring Pop Smoke and Skepta), which attempts to graft Scott’s style onto contemporary drill a la “GATTI,” except with a knock-off 808Melo beat. The mind-boggling degrees of bastardization, which begin with Cudi’s own influence on Scott, recall “I, We, Waluigi: A Post-Modern Analysis of Waluigi”: “You invert Mario to create Wario—Mario turned septic and libertarian—then you reflect the inversion in the reflection: you create a being who can only exist in reference to others. Waluigi is the true nowhere man, without the other characters he reflects, inverts, and parodies he has no reason to exist.” “Show Out” is music, not a fictional Italian scoundrel, which means that its existence is not simply relative, but offensive.
2010’s Man on the Moon II successfully developed the themes of its predecessor—hedonism, fame, and depression collide, resulting in the creation of Cudi’s destructive alter-ego Mr. Rager. The narrative premise Man on the Moon III: The Chosen is more half-baked; according to the album’s jacket copy, “in one night, [Cudi] must face himself again and fight to win back his soul from the evil Mr. Rager.” Over the course of the second half of The Chosen, the production palette lightens and hedges closer to the blend of indie rock, synth-pop, and hip hop that defined the first two MOTM albums. By the end, Cudi has renewed his lease on life; “shit is gravy,” he concludes on the finale “Lord I Know.”
This tidy arc, which moves from dark to light and resolves easily, coupled with the pompous title and division of the album into several acts (in accordance with MOTM custom) gives Man on the Moon III: The Chosen the faux-epic scope of an Avengers movie. We’ve seen it all before. Kid Cudi’s ability to be an avatar for people’s struggles with mental illness has always been central to his appeal. His music might still be relatable, but it has never sounded so cliché.
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