Run It Back is a retrospective review of classic or game-changing hip-hop releases whose style and sound still resonate with listeners in the modern, streaming-driven era. Hip-hop has always been a forward-facing, youth-oriented culture, but it’s also deeply informed by the past. This is our way of bridging the gap, paying homage to rap’s roots while exploring how they still hold relevance today.
There’s a line in an upcoming album wherein the artist mentions feeling down and putting on a Kid Cudi CD to help him cope. It caught my ear, because it’s a sentiment I’ve often heard repeated by other members of that artist’s generation: Kid Cudi is an important, damn near seminal portion of the canon of post-millennials, akin to the way Gen Xers and older “Millennials” like myself swear by Nirvana and Kurt Cobain.
It’s a concept that — having grown up on the music of the late Cobain — I couldn’t quite get my head around. I remember liking Cudi when he came out, but I also remember being pretty disappointed in his musical output after his debut album, Man On The Moon: The End Of The Day. Even typing out the title feels clunky and cumbersome like much of Cudi’s latter day output. He was clearly trying too hard to be deep, even then.
Yet the fact remains that he’s a cultural touchstone for a very large segment of an entire generation. Behold the furor over a recent Twitter exchange between the erstwhile emo-rap messiah and apparent fan/Call Me By Your Name star Timothee Chalamet. Clearly, there’s something there.
And so, in an effort to remain in touch, I revisited Man On The Moon and discovered something I had perhaps already always known and only forgotten: Wherever Kid Cudi eventually wound up — rehab, out of his patron Kanye West’s good graces, then back in them as Kanye strains to claw himself back to hip-hop prominence — his debut album is underpinned by genuine emotions and makes for one hell of an elixir for a broken heart.
One of Cudi’s musical descendents, affable slacker-rapper Post Malone found himself in hot water last year for pointing out a somewhat salient point about rap as a genre; it’s not a great style of music at handling feelings. The outcry covered up a somewhat inconvenient half-truth about his admission: He was kinda right.
While rap music previous to Cudi’s “emoization” of the genre could and did touch on depression, alienation, isolation, and anger, it wasn’t altogether too keen on analyzing or understanding these feelings — at least not on a mainstream level (perhaps Post was simply the wrong person to point this out, considering his past, his youth, and frankly, his ethnicity). While underground emo rappers like Slug, Eyedea, Blueprint, Murs, and others, like LA weirdo rap stalwart Pigeon John often delved into the heady concepts that Cudi eventually mainstreamed with tracks like “Solo Dolo,” “Pursuit of Happiness (Nightmare),” and “Sky Might Fall,” commercial, popular rappers like Tupac, The Notorious BIG, DMX, 50 Cent, and Eminem only found one outlet for those murkier emotions: Aggression.
DMX, for instance, was more than willing to examine the underbelly of human emotion, but only as impetus for the horror-movie-gruesomely violent acts he lyrically committed on early works like It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot or Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood. Other rappers of Cudi’s generation were more than willing to hide their pain behind cool-guy facades, with the notable exception of Drake, whose So Far Gone turn towards the maudlin was preceded by Cudi’s A Kid Named Cudi tape by a good seven months.
Even Kanye’s 808s And Heartbreak, Drake’s admitted inspiration for the hazy ruminations on the sad and lonely aspects of fame, was heavily guided by the hand of Cudi, who appeared on “Welcome To Heartbreak” and holds writing credits on three other songs in the set. The ideas that Kanye gave him the early space to explore on that project ultimately culminated in similar, more fully fleshed-out concepts such as “Soundtrack 2 My Life” where he hum-sang: “I’ve got some issues that nobody can see / And all of these emotions are pouring out of me.”
And while that and other examples that can be pulled from the album’s lyrics are as ham-fisted and almost painfully oversimplified in hindsight, there’s something comforting about such undressed vulnerability. As a listener, I’m sharing in Cudi’s moments of insecurity, of inadequacy, of loneliness, of paranoia. Somehow, in doing so, my own sense of each is lessened, as if in listening, I can slough off part of my burden just knowing that I’m not the only one.
Sometimes, life just sucks. Man On The Moon may not have been the first time a rapper ruminated on the concept with anything other than the contemptuous nihilism of Nas’ “Life’s A Bitch” or Biggie’s “Suicidal Thoughts,” but it was the first time such a departure from the rap order of the day charted as highly as No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, as “Day’N’Nite” did. And it was the first time such concepts were presented in such a plainspoken, blunt manner. This was intentional, as Cudi admitted to Blackbook:
“I speak like a regular dude. I’m not going to write something that I wouldn’t speak. A lot of people find these ill witty ways to rap, but when you speak to them there’s ignorance and no type of common sense, just blandness. It’s important to be true to yourself on all levels; don’t talk about something you don’t know about.”
That Cudi was simply willing to address such topics so earnestly — and however awkwardly — so deliberately opened up an important avenue for conversation in hip-hop culture. Mental health is a talking point now; Jay-Z goes to therapy, Kanye West openly decries the opiates crisis, Vic Mensa pens a raw autobiography detailing his own demons, and new artists cite Cudi’s music as not just an influence, but as a form of self-care.
To be able to affect generations of hip-hop spanning outward from either direction of himself as well as his own peers is the greatest contribution of Man On The Moon. It may not be remembered as a classic, but its impact is that of a classic, and those kids who swear by Cudi may be onto something after all. Out of the mouths of babes, every so often, comes a truth that becomes obvious when you look at it the right way — even from as far away as the moon.