CONFUSED!: Kid Cudi's 'Speeding Bullet 2 Heaven' and the Phenomenon of Art So Bad It's Irresistible

Kid Cudi's new album joins a quirky pantheon of art blurring the line between terrible and sublime.
January 10, 2016, 8:22pm

Kid Cudi’s latest album, Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven, is terrible. This is what I tell people when I say they need to hear it. At their raised eyebrows, I elaborate: It’s not that’s it’s just terrible. It’s that it’s so mind-bogglingly atrocious, so far removed from any modern conceptions of taste, that it grows into this fascinating and hilarious slog where each new half-baked idea, offensive cliché, and ill-advised Beavis and Butthead skit brings it to deeper and deeper lows, such that by the end, you could make a convincing argument that it’s the worst album of all time. Somehow this doesn’t get people excited.

I’ve spent several listens wondering if making the worst album of all time is exactly what Cudi set out to do. The fact that more than half the songs feature Cudi singing “erruereurrererr” with a less-than-tangential relationship to the key, or that he puts the lyrics “Her vagina is moist!” and “No more chicken sandwiches!” within 30 seconds of each other, or that a song called “Judgmental Cunt” is the album’s centerpiece, raises basic questions of intent and logic. He must have known that the album would receive intense derision upon its release. We know he has at least some idea of how to make competent music. This is the guy who made “Day 'N' Nite,” that ubiquitous song all the serious, alternative music bros in your high school liked. I knew that guy. I also knew the music that same guy made, and it sounded like Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven: a faux deep, lazily composed, shittily produced, and lyrically trite collection of dreck about being sad and whatever. I fucking love it.

It reminds me of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, one of the all-time great films to blur the line between terrible and sublime. It’s supposed to be a tragedy, but its endless parade of non-sequiturs, inhuman dialogue, mid-film casting switches, and establishing shots of San Francisco turn the film into a legendary farce. At the center of it is the auteur, Wiseau, a man from planets unknown producing, directing, and starring in what he believes is a masterpiece. The film’s entire legacy is dependent on Wiseau’s staunch defense that the film is misunderstood and not an uproarious comedy of filmmaking errors. Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven is an auteur’s folly as well, laden with ideas that never should’ve made it past the brain-to-mouth filter, let alone onto a record. Nevertheless, here it is for us to consume in abject confusion, and occasionally, in uproarious laughter while we consider questions of Kid Cudi’s mental health, his artistic ambition, his satisfaction with the album, what makes music bad or good, etc. Put another way, Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven almost instantly becomes a thing to be looked at rather than enjoyed—we’re not in the universe of the album, but rather outside it, wondering how it came to be.

This makes it nearly impossible to take in by yourself. I’ve found the album works well as a social experience, where people can look at each other and understand they are not alone in their shock. Such is the case with so-bad-it’s-good art—when you attempt to take it in alone, sooner or later you come up against the crushing reality that you’ve spent 90 minutes consuming garbage you’ll never get back—but this is also why the so-bad-it’s-good phenomenon lends itself well to visual media. Legendarily terrible films have long been a staple of pop culture and are adored in their own way. One need only recall classic science-fiction movies from the 1950s, or Youtube clips from Troll 2, Silent Night, Deadly Night, Showgirls, or any number of films that are revered for their campy, over-the-top awfulness to understand that bad films make great memes.

This is not the case with music. There are very few pieces of music that are shared for their abject and hilarious horribleness. Metallica’s St. Anger may be one of the most hated albums ever recorded, but you won’t get any Facebook invites to ironic St. Anger listening parties. Why not? After all, music almost certainly has an equally prominent cultural role to film and television, so we should be able to celebrate its failures with the same ironic glee that we do its visual counterparts. The answer is two-fold: first, without a visual component, music is generally either consumed as atmosphere—at parties or and work, situations where it’s pushed to the brain’s background—or it’s meant to be absorbed in solitude, where it’s difficult to bear something terrible for very long, no matter how funny it may be.

The second part is that it’s really hard to fuck up music. Following the most basic laws of composition will render even an amateur a song at least adequate enough to just be “boring.” Truly “awful/great” records need to be so far outside the box, you might be tempted to think of them as works of genius. The Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World is such a record. It’s so arhythmic, so bafflingly incompetent at every level, it made fans out of the likes of Kurt Cobain and Frank Zappa, the latter of whom joked it was “better than the Beatles.” (Sound familiar?) Another, more recent addition to the “awful/great” canon is Farrah Abraham’s My Teenage Dream Ended, the audio companion to her autobiography of the same name. That record features Abraham making dark dubstep while shrieking lyrics so heavily autotuned they’re rendered incomprehensible gibberish, but damned if it isn’t fun trying to adjust your ear to Abraham’s wildly-untrained musical sensibility. And then there’s something like Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” whose staying power hinges on the maddening catchiness of the tune and the relatable inanity of its lyrics. There will always be Fridays followed by Saturdays, with Sundays coming afterwards, and Rebecca Black will be relevant every weekend until you die.

All of these atrocities share a tragic narrative that makes them canonically terrible-yet-wonderful works of art. The Shaggs were an all-girl group forced to perform by their father, who believed his mother had predicted his daughters’ rise to stardom. Abraham, one of the more notorious cast members of MTV's high school pregnancy reality drama Teen Mom, wrote a book chronicling her life following the death of her daughter’s father, and while she is generally not well thought of, the pain of that experience seeped its way into her totally bonkers album, whether she admits it or not. And the Rebecca Black fiasco is nothing without the controversial, arguably exploitative tactics of the ARK Music Factory, which takes money from the rich parents of girls and gives them utter dreck with the promise it will help their pop career—only, in the case of Black (and to varying degrees, everyone else who has given their money to ARK), they made her a meme.

Each of these cases reflect an ugly side to the American Dream of superstardom that leads people to desperate, deal-with-the-devil measures that produce horrible results. Kid Cudi’s Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven is a mark of how badness has changed in the post-internet age. It is an act of self-sabotage, a very charged and pointed rejection of the evermore shared culture from a guy who has a decent chunk of public spotlight. Perhaps he thought he was making his In Utero, and in many ways he did, but whereas Kurt Cobain wrung pathos out of apathy, experimental songs, and disgusting riffs, Cudi fails at wringing any emotion at all. All of Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven sounds lazy. Riffs drag on for days, lyrics sound like they were made up on the spot, and the whole thing sounds like it was recorded in a tin can. But Cudi’s grand failure makes it fascinating and concerning: it really sounds like the record of someone at the verge of collapse. Lyrics like “These walls ain’t talkin’ back/ might as well finally paint them black/ I’m out of ideas,” and “I realize there are no answers/ to rid me of this cancer/ still, I really gotta leave,” are as rhythmically clumsy as they sound, but not-so-subtly suggest an intense darkness in Cudi’s mind.

Perhaps we laugh at music that’s “so bad it’s amazing” because it’s easier to giggle than confront the reality that these people might need help. But maybe what sparks fascination with the “awful/good” is that it’s a creative process so foreign to us we wish to know more about it. We do this with music we love—study it, discuss it, let it fill us with wonder—so it’s only natural we should do it with music we hate. It’s simply the other, uglier side of the coin. It’s a rare phenomenon, but one that, when it comes up, ought to be cherished, because it’s not often we get our sense of taste so earnestly fucked with. I really hope Kid Cudi finds some help, but as for his record, I’ve listened to Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven more than I have half of my favorite records of 2015, and can safely say that it has been one of my sincerest joys this season.

Follow Adam on Twitter.