For Kid Cudi, Mental Health Remains a Musical Cornerstone on ‘Man On The Moon III: The Chosen’

Kid Cudi’sMan on the Moon III: The Chosen” finally wraps “Man on the Moon” album cycle this week with 18 new songs that evidence his sharpening talents as a writer but less growth as a person than you might expect after 11 years. While longtime fans will find much to connect with on his highly-anticipated latest album, there’s not a lot of new territory explored since its 2010 predecessor (much less his 2016 album “Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’”), and the music itself doesn’t move the needle as much in an era where singing and rapping have become largely interchangeable in hip-hop.

You can trace a direct line from the Pharcyde’s “Passin’ Me By” to the entire career of Kid Cudi, a moment of sad clarity leading to song after song of ambient vulnerability — perhaps the most to be expected in a genre whose foundations are fundamentally, perhaps irreversibly, based in machismo. Cudi’s breakthrough 2008 single “Day ‘n’ Nite” and his 2009 studio debut “Man on the Moon: The End of the Day” offered a welcome bit of melodicism in hip-hop just ahead of the sea change that Drake’s debut “Thank Me Later” would inspire, but both rappers have always been better at declaring they have feelings at all than delving into them with much specificity. 

It’s tough to tell how much Cudi sent contemporary rap on its current path or simply fell victim to trends that ensued after his debut, but listening to “Tequila Shots,” the first song on “The Chosen” (after a brief intro), not a day has passed musically for him, a both good and bad thing. His chanting harmonies are exactly the same — you won’t mistake him for Young Thug or Future or Lil Baby — as are the booming, darkly menacing instrumentals that provide a backdrop for verses like “Gotta take a minute, y’all, traveled far / Feelin’ somethin’, no, I can’t ignore my instincts.” But feeling what? Conflicting emotions are especially relatable in this pandemic year, but when he sings “Back just where I started, it’s the same old damaged song,” he’s telling a bit on himself for a lack of progress that soon becomes evident across the album. Worse, where Pharcyde once turned anecdotes about personal disappointment into anthems, Cudi’s anguish functions so existentially that they become meaningless on any deeper or even just more candid level.

What’s interesting about Cudi is his cinematic sense of narrative, framing his albums in different acts and telling stories — a saving grace that at least suggests he knows he’s focusing on a single topic or idea. On “Another Day,” for example, Cudi continues through the party scene he set in “Tequila Shots” as he sings “Ain’t much change in me, y’all,” blurring the lines between fiction, personal confession and creative inertia. But as he advances into the subject of sex parties attended by girls in “itty-bitty ‘kinis” on “She Knows This,” the best favor the rapper does himself is layer in different instrumentals and new sounds for each verse, reaching back to the dubstep sound he explored on his early records and turning his voice into a hypnotic drone.

Transitioning into “Act II: The Rager, The Menace,” Cudi the character begins to spiral out of control on “Damaged,” where he sings “Hear they tryna stop me, hate on my growth;” but where is that growth evident? This is the section of the album where he’s depicting the highs of his success, and it’s not clear how or why this is different from the songs that came before it, or what he thinks he’s tapping into about himself, much less that it’s universal. Of course, hip-hop is a genre given to a lot of repetition in terms of subject matter and language. But it kinda feels worse when somebody like Cudi thinks they’re saying something meaningful when it’s all the same trite nonsense. He does get to more interesting territory by “Elsie’s Baby Boy (Flashback),” a tribute to his mom set to a guitar riff that samples The Animals “House of the Rising Sun,” but the juxtaposition between the verses and a chorus where he repeats “He was so bored in the winter/ Such a little sad boy, little sad boy” undercuts the weight and specificity of his portrait of his upbringing. Meanwhile, a lack of detail ironically elevates “Sept. 16,” a love song inspired by his girlfriend’s birthday, because its sentimentality can apply to listeners looking for new songs to play for their own partners.

Cudi edges towards a breakthrough, or more effective balance between feelings and focused thoughts, on “The Void,” where he sings “I will fall in the void, fall in the void just to avoid / Anything that can bring me down or fuck with my flow.” But the problem with this music ultimately becomes the realization it isn’t really about much of anything. If he’s been wrestling with depression since the first “Man on the Moon,” how do they manifest themselves? What treatment has he sought? How has his success alleviated or intensified these fluctuations in wellness? This is an artist who has made mental health issues a cornerstone of his music, and if he can’t get treatment or even articulate what he’s going through, then what hope do his fans have to relate or relieve their own anxieties? As much as almost any other major release in 2020, “Man on the Moon III: The Chosen” absolutely captures the feelings that so many people have right now, trapped between productivity and lethargy, escapism and introspection. But Kid Cudi has been working on them — and presumably through them — for a lot longer than many of his listeners, so if by now he can’t offer insights or suggestions, surely the least he could do is be honest about why he hasn’t made more progress.

Man on the Moon III: The Chosen” releases Dec. 11 on Apple Music.