The holiday season is upon us, and aside from the influx of Black Friday advertisements, speculations, and unpopular gift trepidations, this time of year always gives us more hyped releases than any other. November treated us to two knock-outs of Kid Cudi, then Kanye. Both paint inward, brooding perspectives on bursting into stardom while endeavoring against the grim gravitational pool of the black holes of sin and celebrity. Hell, the deeper you delve into these two, the more you suspect that contemporary hip-hop is purging itself of past excess and transgressions. First on the docket, Kid Cudi’s sophomore Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager.
“When the days change, so does my attitude…When the nights change, so do my nightmares too. I dream reality, is my dream.” Scott Ramon Sugero Mescudi, or just Scott Mescudi, blew up in 2009 on the heels of his acclaimed 2008 A Kid Named Cudi mixtape. Maybe it was due to the fact the general public had finally discovered introspective hip-hop and-well-Ratatat (“Heaven At Nite” still tops “Alive (Nightmare)”) or Crookers, or maybe it was the fact he was so immediately frank. While West was criticized for publicly putting his personal life on display, Scott thrived. Man on the Moon II continues in the same vein, much as Eminem had hoped with Relapse and Rehab, yet can he actually pull off a new chapter without succumbing the listener to an auditory turkey coma?
West and Cudi have much in common aside from their collaborations and GOOD Music. Both are talented phenoms, musically progressive, and subsequently contract the music stardom malady that has consumed countless musicians before them. The difference? They don’t fight it as Britney Spears does through denial and divorce, but in embracing the public’s inundation of interest. Cudi, in an interview with Complex Magazine, straightforwardly stated, “I started doing cocaine to get through interviews, ’cause people wanted to know a lot about my personal life and I wasn’t prepared for a ’60 Minutes’ interview every time.” As opposed to us knowing Kanye’s every move, intentionally or unintentionally, Kid Cudi stays low. The Legend of Mr. Rager is our window into this life through five acts of a play. If you give the liberty to draw further back, we discover Scott Mescudi more a modern day Francisco Goya; consumed by emotions, creativity and a perpetual dread.
Cee-Lo introduces this journey through Cudi’s self-described reality with the guitar-piano vintage pop jaunt of “REVOFEV”. Musically it’s innocent, yet as he draws you deeper and deeper (“Wake up, I heard they found a solution. Where’ll you be for the revolution?”) his coaxing becomes distorted, echoing before the beat backs into strings. Repeats of “I’m your big brother” tries to reassure the listener, though it leaves us as unsure as Goya’s own big brother whether he’s the destructor or the victim. Finally Mr. Rager comes out through bombastic distorted drums and a hinting growl just prior to “Don’t Play This Song” and Act II: A Stronger Trip.
Act II is the muddy, gray downward spiral as the psychedelic “We Aite (Wake Your Mind Up)” masks a crowd in the background, giving the hint that Cudi’s prepping in the hall. Given the disclosure from the aforementioned interview, “Marijuana” is the natural mode of preparation. The ying-yang of his calm choruses and paranoid piano-laced verses hold a certain self-control. Think “Solo Dolo (Nightmare)” finely chopped into a powder, then combined with half of “Heart of a Lion” off The End of Day. The song is easily one of the top produced tracks as a brooding beat accompanied by a distant and soaring electric guitar is the imagined foundation over Cudi’s repetitions. Look here for an example of using a choir to enhance a song, instead of overwhelm one. “Mojo So Dope”, with its subtle organ and street walking beat, churns on ceaselessly through an ace, memorable chorus as Mr. Rager envenomates Mescudi.
With “Ashin’ Kusher” and “Erase Me” in Act III: Party On, those looming shadows of addiction and abuse are growing grave. Granted, the lyrical darkness is increasing exponentially, yet Chuck Inglish and Jim Jonsin managed to match the intensity musically. “Wild’n Cuz I’m Young” is not a strong track, but feels more like an extended intermission as “We Aite (Wake Your Mind Up)” was. It’s forgettable, unless you were taking in the album from end to end. Without it, “The Mood” and its jackal of laughter over a neutral delivery of “No one talks, sweating it out, lost in the mood”, would lose any sense. Mr. Rager has rooted and taken over Scott by this point, directing his actions over the stripped, dance base. I incite Goya again. Kid Cudi has transformed, becoming a man consumed by vicious nightmares of his own creation and emotions; trapped. Compare the album art and The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.
Cage, Cudi and St. Vincent converge to create one of the top songs of the year in “MANIAC”. Introduced by the sample of “The Strangers” by St. Vincent tuning in, Act IV begins with the full transition into Mr. Rager’s perspective. The ethereal “I am a maniac” over a sole, isolated guitar that doesn’t seem to be in the right place-but is-creates a roiling internal tempest contained by Cage’s verse. Personally, Cage’s collaboration seems to top the rest, purely based on his voice and the sheer bitterness behind his “I Never Knew You” lending a newfound depth to Kid Cudi’s introspection. On the other side, Mary J. Blige‘s supporting appearance on “These Worries” soars and lends an elegant softness to an otherwise somber hip-hop album. She’s seemingly a saving grace.
The Legend of Mr. Rager is 17 songs, and can drag only if you’re going for easy listening. “The End”, I honestly forget about and used to prevent me from moving on to Act V: You Love & You Learn, the show-stopper. The opening lyrics come from “All Along”, a calm to the nightmares. It’s a serene song; strong in the sense of its percussion but sheer frankness in coming to terms with his troubles. “GHOST!” is the last gasp of Mr. Rager, even as Kid Cudi reminds the listener, “My name is Scott Mescudi”. It’s more a self-reflection than any other piece; a summary of the recounting of Mr. Rager. Think that Cudi was not the one speaking to you, the listener, until this point when he rhymes:
“The people I met and the places I’ve been
All will make me the man I so proudly am
But I wanna know one thing
When did I become a ghost?
I’m mostly confused about the world I live in
They think that I’m lonely, well I probably am
One thing that still gets me
When did I become a ghost?”
While “Trapped in My Mind” leaves it open to whether or not Mr. Rager or Scott Mescudi is speaking of the walls imprisoning himself. Unlike the first album, the only hints at the next chapter are the padded-wall repetitions over complex, reverberating disjointed percussion. You’re not quite sure who will win in this internal struggle, nearly akin to the alter-egoism of T.I. vs. T.I.P.
Both albums from Cudi top an hour in length, and while The End of Day held more pop-friendly melodies (“Simple As…” and the obvious “Make Her Say”), it rarely held my attention. It was too heavy in slow tempo tracks. Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager resolves that with a better balance (2, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12) and cohesion, even as lyrically he has not been this bleak. The sheer fascination at this inner struggle coupled with celebrity, sincerely presented through cracks fully drawn theatrical curtains, make this sequel worth delving and revisiting.