Kid Cudi needs friends right now.
If that wasn’t obvious from his recent breakdown — wherein he was publicly dragged by his former mentor and checked himself into rehab — then it’s abundantly clear on his new album Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’. To be fair, Kanye’s had his own issues with real friends, and later recanted and continued to support his former protege. But clearly, Ye wasn’t involved in the studio, which is where Cudi really could’ve used him.
The album blows up all the problems with self-indulgence that Cudi’s had his entire career to massive levels. Throughout the 90-minute album (!) you can’t but feel that Cudi really needs someone in his corner, if only to tell him no.
From the very first track, it’s clear that Cudi’s had little editing for the record. Otherwise, they might have asked if we really needed that much groaning and maybe informed Cud that no grown man should let the phrase “sucking boobs” pass from his lips and into a microphone. The album is full of odd, embarrassing decisions like that. Passion is largely a collection of bad looks that could have been squashed or altered if Cudi just had a sounding board. “Releaser” contains the most needlessly irritating delivery of 2016 (outside of maybe “California” the rare clunker on Awaken, My Love! [Editor’s note: I disagree, “California” is fire]) Cudi’s strained whisper comes off like a cross between Serge Gainsbourg and Salad Fingers. The switch to French in that song was literally groan-worthy, as several startled coffee shop patrons who were unlucky enough to be sitting near me on my first listen can attest.
The lyrics are another area where a team lift would have made Passion more listenable. Cudi’s always portrayed himself as a deep soul with a penchant for the metaphysical and the difference between his fans and detractors is whether or not they took him at his word. He’s a tell-er, not a show-er. On “Mature Nature” he raps “this is so far out, trust me” and I don’t think I could better summarize Cudi’s career in a single sentence if you gave me 100 tries.
Cudi is the type of rapper who talks about being different as “coloring outside the lines” and never misses a chance to call his demons exactly that. He’s the type of rapper who builds entire songs around saying that your grandparents think are cliche (“Kitchen”). There’s no guaranteeing that he would have listened, but a friend might have been able to help workshop the aural fedora tip of “I am entranced by you” on “Fight At First Sight/Advanced.” They could have stood in the way of a song about his mental wounds (called “Wounds,” natch) and tried to keep it from coming into the world. Instead, we got what amounts to a “Fight Song” for high, teenage sadbois.
What makes this whole thing such a bummer is the glimpses of greatness we get from Cudi. There’s the stuff of a great album here, if only he had a little help and someone willing to kill his darlings. The production on Passion is routinely excellent from the sepulchral early-Odd Future beat of “Releaser” to the jubilant skronk of “Surfin’.” The aforementioned “Kitchen” is lush and beautiful, with a wonderfully constructed hook. It would have been great if only Scott had someone to call on who could supply him with something interesting to say. This album is a strong argument in favor of ghostwriters.
There’s a bit of a roadmap on how Cudi can make a better album buried within Passion‘s long run-time. “Does It” alone has two very strong ways forward that Cudi could take to make something excellent. For one, it’s the first example of straightforward rapping we’ve heard from Scott in quite a while. And part of the clunkiness of other tracks on this album is the way he lets the bad lines float in space. When stacked on top of some stunting brag-rap lines, the slightly off bars don’t have time to thud so heavily.
And we have to mention that Cudi sounds great over the echo-y, piano-driven rave-up that drives the tune. A$AP Ferg used a similar path to get out of his dark, Trap Lord-y rut earlier this year and Cudi has a much better sense of melody and songcraft than Fergenstein. A full album of throwback house from Cudi would be something to hear.
But Cudi’s way with melodies and ear for choruses is a strength that morphs into a problem that reappears throughout Passion. The hooks on “Swim In The Light” and “Distant Fantasies” are so nice that they deserve a more compelling lyric sheet. This is the guy who rhymed “night” with “night” about 500 times on his breakout single and, just like that song, everything enjoyable on this album becomes irritating before song is even over. Cudi even repeats an Andre 3000 guest verse — turning what’s almost always an album highlight into an annoyance. We doubt that was Three Stacks’ call.
With that being said, the guest appearances always come on the album’s best songs. Andre 3000 and Cudi sound great over the spooky, Theremin clatter of “The Guide,” and Cudi inhabits Travis Scott’s hollowed-out universe pretty well on “Baptized In Fire.” Plus, the Latin Jazz-meets-G-Funk crawl that Pharrell provides on “Flight At First Sight/Advanced” is inspired, even with those aforementioned groaners in the mix. Kid Cudi’s music has always come from a lonely place, but we hope that he’s willing to let people into his headspace because his music always comes out better for it.
Passion shows that Cudi really needs someone willing to stop him, to hurt his feelings a little bit. Perhaps the saddest proof of this comes on “Surfin'” the album’s best and final song. After five minutes of managing to be awesome in spite of yet another hook with an A-A rhyme scheme, Cudi closes out the track and the album with 15 seconds of a capella yodeling. No less a producer than Pharrell was in the room for that.
Still, we want to see Cudi get better, to mend his old ties and start letting people back in again. When he got together with Kanye earlier this year, he made “Father Stretch My Hands” and almost all of the standouts on Passion feature other artists. We’re not saying a friendlier Cudi will make a classic but after his two releases this year, he and his reformed inner circle will have nowhere to go but up.