Most young fans idolize Kanye West as the icon of this hip-hop generation, but who does he hold in that regard? Kid Cudi. Kanye called his Kids See Ghosts cohort “the most influential artist of the past 10 years” at a September 2016 Saint Pablo Tour stop. Cudi’s influence looms beyond the melody-driven, genre-bending brand of hip-hop he helped usher in with his contributions to Yeezy’s 808s & Heartbreak — and in highly regarded albums like his Man On The Moon series and A Kid Named Cudi.
Cudi’s cultural impact reverberates through the vulnerable lyrical exploration of his mental health battles that defined his catalog and inspired Travis Scott to deem him “one of the realest rappers alive.” In a genre where the term “real” is so often reserved for hypermasculine, seemingly bulletproof depictions of Black manhood, Cudi has subverted those norms and epitomized the term through ever-relatable reflections of his existential frailties and being “consumed by doom,” as he grieved on “Soundtrack 2 My Life” from his highly-regarded Man On The Moon album.
Thankfully, it appears that doom has dissipated, as he recently told Billboard that he’s the “best he’s ever been” after entering rehab for suicidal ideations in 2016, and is eager to make more music, including future iterations of Kids See Ghosts.
When Kid Cudi broke out as a solo act in 2008 with “Day N Nite,” his ode to self-medicating, he was an outlier in a genre still dominated by traditional messaging of emotionless Black manhood — but the coming shift was apparent. It’s now more culturally acceptable for Black men, specifically hip-hop artists, to be open about their mental health struggles, as artists like Tyler, The Creator, Saba, Vic Mensa, Lil Uzi Vert, and the late XXXTentacion affirm — but it wasn’t always like that.
Lil Wayne was hip-hop’s reigning king at the time and even he admitted: “I Feel Like Dying.” Kanye West had released a cathartic adieu to his fiancé and mother on 808s & Heartbreak (with Cudi’s help). Drake was working on So Far Gone — the opening offering from the Toronto artist’s introspection industrial complex. Even the steely 50 Cent released an album in 2009 called Before I Self-Destruct, hinting at the acknowledgment of a breaking point that so many of us seem on the verge of — but are afraid to discuss publicly.
Compared to modern icons like Drake, Kanye, and Lil Wayne, Cudi doesn’t have a boatload of sales, or a room full of accolades, but his weighty impact is reflected in adulation from the people, which is the intangible, everlasting achievement that most artists live for. He’s one of the first artists to be unabashed about his depressive ruminations and did so in a melodically intriguing manner that progressed alternative rock aesthetics into the hip-hop world one cadence at a time. Sure, he was Dat Kid From Cleveland with a beaming smile, but his lyrics also conveyed a darkness that shaped his worldview and resonated with millions — including me. I can’t admit to being a diehard fan, but I appreciate his presence.
From the start, his duality was what made him feel accessible. I remember watching him performing at an awards show, smiling from ear-to-ear, but songs like “Pursuit Of Happiness” and “In My Dreams (Cudder Anthem)” indicated that the moment of creative fulfillment was just a fleeting sojourn from melancholy. I’m sure he wanted to capture that jubilant moment and carry it with him, like the ocean’s tranquil resonance in a seashell.
Very few of us enjoy our crippling, depressive moments, but their stigma makes them impossible to even discuss with loved ones. Cudi spoke for us if no one else did. What critics have characterized as “fake depth” in his songwriting could also be perceived as him admirably grappling with the task of poetically encapsulating the exhausting ache of depression.
Cudi likely dreamed of music success from a young age — but in a September 2009 issue of Rolling Stone, he admitted that he also dreamed of his own death from the fourth grade on. The adage persists that your first album is a reflection of your entire life beforehand, and Man On The Moon is a consummate corroboration of the theory. Cudi’s childhood nightmares — along with grieving the death of his father at 11 and uncle in 2007 (which inspired “Day N Nite”) — constituted the thematics of Man On The Moon, a project A.V. Club said radiated a “thick layer of open, intense self-loathing” — aka paved the way for my future social media presence.
Cudi’s resulting work followed in the same vein, marking him a chief purveyor of what’s been neatly delineated as “emo rap” by hip-hop media. From the influence of Cudi (and his band WZRD) came artists like Travis Scott, Lil Uzi Vert, and the late Lil Peep and XXXTentacion, who expressed the same kind of internal struggles with spiritual contentment and substances as Cudi does — with their own flourishes. Until recently though, Cudi wasn’t enjoying life enough to appreciate his impact on the game.