Long before emo rap decidedly entered the mainstream, Kid Cudi was Hip Hop’s one-man bastion of emotional crooning. But will rap’s most celebrated influencer boast a legacy that survives through his music, or is he forever destined to be the torchbearer of inspiration?
I will be completely honest going into this article, I discovered Kid Cudi very late. I know to a lot of people that’s practically blasphemy, but I really didn’t start paying attention to the guy until, say, two years ago? I guess even then, “attention” might be a little strong — it was more that I became aware of Cudi’s influence on Hip Hop. Me and my flatmates talk a lot about influence, where it comes from and who is at the forefront of various mediums, and since ‘influencer’ is now an actual job title it feels a more valuable topic to discuss than ever. I read an article in Cultivation titled Kid Cudi: The Most Influential Artist of All Time, and came away with mixed feelings. On the one hand I can see why someone might believe this, and genuinely, Kid Cudi is one of the most important figures in recent music history, without a doubt. On the other hand, I can honestly say I’ve never heard a Kid Cudi project that I thought was consistent front-to-back. When I asked my flatmate what he thought about my minor revelation, he responded bluntly: “I’ve never even heard a Kid Cudi project from front-to-back.” Thus, the inspiration for this article.
His debut, A Kid Named Cudi is a mixtape that I still think qualifies as some of Cudi’s best work to date. There’s an emotional rawness to it that doesn’t feel forced, but in contrast also holds the happy-go-lucky sound that bounced it’s way through Hip Hop music at the time. That time being 2008, an era in the genre that purists would rather forget — apple-bottom jeans, boots with the fur, yadda yadda — but Cudi stood out. He wasn’t trying to live up to any sort of expectation, which is why the name of the mixtape is so fitting: he was just a kid named Cudi, pure and simple, who turned his thoughts into music and his ideas into an actuality.
I’m not going to waste too much time by diving deep into what it is that makes Cudi so influential. If you’ve heard 808’s and Heartbreak by Kanye West, then you’ve heard Kid Cudi. Or perhaps you’ve heard Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight by Travis Scott, or maybe Drake’s Take Care. All number one albums in several countries, all have Kid Cudi written all over them. But there’s a reason I name those albums over any of Cudi’s actual albums, and it feeds into the question I’m presenting here: to what extent is influence more powerful than talent? Because in all honesty, I believe all three of the aforementioned albums to be better than any Kid Cudi album.
It worries me that someone like Kid Cudi who, unlike some artists in his field who have been just as successful, actually has something to say, might end up as a cultural staple of yesteryear to future music fans. Fans who will associate the man more by the artists he’s inspired than by the music he has actually created.
I do believe he’s got an immense power, and there’s something in his crooned lyrics and vocal range that adds power to his words and delivery, much in same way it added force to the music of Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and Kanye West — all vocalists you’d have a hard time making a case for being your favourite singer, but all astronomically talented. What I am questioning, however, is whether Kid Cudi’s ideas (and the domino effect they have in the music industry) outweigh in value his actual songs.
The trick to understanding the appeal of Kid Cudi’s music, aside from digesting the lyrical substance and the emotion that seeps through it, is to understand that it isn’t perfect. A lot of the music he releases sound like demo tracks with high production value, or simply just ideas dressed up as finished songs. Take ‘Frequency’ for example, one of Cudi’s most popular tracks from the more recent side of his catalogue. Its simplicity carries it, and yes, while that is in part the point, it’s Cudi’s hum-sung vocal performance that gives it away. It’s like Cudi is swinging a bag full of melodies around the recording booth and trying to hear which one hits the wall with the most pleasant splat. It’s the reason that so many Kid Cudi features in recent years stop dead at the melody? Rarely dabbling with complex lyrics, hardly anything resembling a song structure beyond it. Because at his best and most honest self, Kid Cudi is a master of fishing for melodies and coming out with a golden hook.
The first single from Astroworld by Travis Scott, for example, features Cudi’s distinctive hums and they work beautifully with a song that would have been nowhere near as effective without them. On ‘Stop Trying to be God’, Cudi doesn’t so much dictate the melody as he does the instrumental; Cudi’s voice is literally used as an instrument in the making of these songs. Get this, he’s not even credited as a featured artist. Why? Because it’s become an Easter egg to hear Kid Cudi on a song, and it truly is something to get excited over.
Despite a somewhat inconsistent output over the years, Cudi is still held in enormously high regard by his peers, and when you consider everything he’s influenced over the years it isn’t difficult to see why. Basically, Kid Cudi’s ideas are better in theory than in practice (at least in his case), but is there an issue in that? After all, it’s more than most have done. It just begs the question, to what extent do we measure success against influence?
I’m interested to see what Cudi will do next, I just hope it will be a body of music that stands, in it’s own right, as being musically palatable in the way that those who have borrowed from him are — and it better not be another experimental rock album…