Kid Cudi contains multitudes. He’s Mr “Solo Dolo”, the lonely stoner. He’s Kanye West’s younger brother, in the same way Ye saw himself as the sibling to Jay Z. He’s a rockstar, a rapper, an actor – an artist. If you’ve recently listened to the Cleveland native, as you might have done on his Kids See Ghosts album or as a guest feature (most notably on “A$AP Forever REMIX”), you’ll know he’s “reborn”, feeling “free as a bird”. Yes, he’s still _hhmmmyhheah_-ing his way into the stratosphere, but something about Cudi these days feels lighter, bright, less coloured with darkness.
For those well versed in the 34-year-old’s backstory, it’s triumphant and heartwarming to witness his newfound mental clarity – as though a weight has shifted from his being. Like so many of us, Cudi has experienced setbacks, anxiety, the whole tribulation of being human. He displays these experiences in his music, and in doing so has become a deeply revered yet relatable individual. “He’s the most influential artist of the past ten years”, says Kanye West. While it’s impossible to quantify that statement, it does hold some strong weight when surveying the rap landscape.
It all started with A Kid Named Cudi. Released ten years ago today, the mixtape introduced Cudi’s versatile soundboard to the world, then it sent him skyward with incredible, rocket-like velocity. Two months after the tape dropped, for example, Cudi was signed to G.O.O.D Music – the label owned by West, who put out six albums in six weeks earlier this year. And, more impressively, before the sun set on 2008, Cudi had been in writing sessions for West’s 808s & Heartbreak (“Robocop”, “Welcome to Heartbreak”, “Paranoid” and “Heartless”) and Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3 (“Already Home”). In the league of big breaks, Cudi was quickly written in as an up and coming legend of the new-school, already working with rap’s two big names.
When retrospectively considered, 808s is widely seen as the turning point at which rap shed its braggadocious stereotype and opened up its heart. But while it’s true that 808s had a vast impact, preparing music culture for an act like Drake, there’s a chance the album wouldn’t have been possible without Kid Cudi. Let’s not speculate though. Instead, on its anniversary, lets return to A Kid Named Cudi. What makes it a special and impressive debut record? And before getting into that, what’s the backstory leading up to its release? Who / how / what is Kid Cudi?
Like many of a similar age, Cudi relocated to a big city in his early twenties – in this case New York, with just $500 to his name. For a while he stayed with an uncle in South Bronx. After picking up a job, he moved into an apartment with the producer Dot Da Genius, who would later engineer A Kid Named Cudi and produce two tracks (“Day 'N' Nite” and “Cleveland is the Reason”). Though Cudi had long been crafting his sound – an early demo track called “Party All The Time”, reportedly recorded in 2001, is a lot of infamous humming – it wasn’t until around 2006, after another producer introduced him to then A&R Plain Pat, when things started to fall into place. As reported in a 2010 Spin interview, Plain Pat didn’t immediately sign Kid Cudi. However he did bring him under his wing – an important partnership since Pat also worked with West (and at one point managed the two artists).
Though rap had already diversified beyond the coasts and the south in the mid-2000s, with acts like Kanye and Lil Wayne switching things up for the future, Cudi seemed to be even more versatile. A Kid Named Cudi features an impressive range of samples – Nosaj Thing, Band of Horses, Paul Simon, N.E.R.D, Ratatat. Perhaps more crucially, and especially on “Day 'N' Nite” (which sounds eerily similar to Benga and Coki’s UK dubstep track “Night”) and “Cleveland is the Reason”, Cudi and Dot Da Genius brought an underground electronic club sound into hip hop – something that’s reflected now in a string of releases that stretch from the swirling production of Noah ‘40’ Shebib and Boi-1da, through to Danny Brown and Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory.
As impactful was Cudi’s openness about his mental health. On “The Prayer”, over a sample of Band of Horses’ “The Funeral”, Cudi speaks on death, of dreaming of being free since his birth, of being “ready for a funeral”. Album opener “Down and Out” is even more direct: “You'd commit suicide trying to read my mind.” Meanwhile on “Man On The Moon”, Cudi lays down the astral tone and emotionally raw subject matter that would come to form his 2010 debut album of the same name. “Guess if I was simple in the mind / everything would be fine,” he says on that track, alluding to the kind of anxiety that can colour a situation into something that doesn’t seem to be ok, even if it is.
Many of today’s rap acts speak candidly about their depression, anxiety or suicidal ideation. In fact, in a group that stretches from Earl Sweatshirt, to Isaiah Rashad, to the glut of emo rappers, you would be hard pressed to find a new, young MC that hasn’t spoken about their feelings in one way or another. Part of that comes down to how much more a younger generation of teens and adults discuss their mental health. That said, in a genre and age group where Kid Cudi has been hailed as a hero (“I MAKE MUSIC CUZ OF U”, Travis Scott wrote in a now deleted tweet in 2016, just one post in a sea of love shown toward Cudi), it’s not hard to see him as a component in encouraging a lot of young people to share what’s going on inside their heads.
Cudi has been through his share of mental health struggles in the decade since he released his first mixtape. In 2016, he checked himself into rehab for depression and suicidal urges. “I am not at peace,” he wrote in a Facebook post at the time. “I’ll be back, stronger, better. Reborn.” If the lyrics on Kids See Ghosts are anything to go by, Cudi has succeeded in that rebirth. “I’m so, I’m so reborn, I'm movin' forward… / Ain’t no stress on me Lord, I'm movin' forward,” he sings on “Reborn”. His story is inspirational, human, real, and in looking back at A Kid Named Cudi we can see how far he’s come as both a person and an artist. Without Cudi, rap would be different: elements of it might not be so dark, but it wouldn’t be as hopeful and bright either. He is a singular talent. A Kid Named Cudi is the beginning point of his journey, Kids See Ghosts is several personal and spiritual evolutions above that record, the future looks like a good place to be. Or as Cudi might put it himself: “Hmmmmmmm yeaaaaaahh HmmmmmmmHmhMmmmmm”.
You can find Ryan on Twitter.