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There Is a Light That Never Goes Out

After a stint in rehab to cope with depression, Kid Cudi’s ‘Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’’ is its own kind of triumph

(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)

Kid Cudi’s Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ is a good album.

And I do mean good-good — not “good” in the bargaining, so-bad-it’s-good way fans have had to digest most everything he’s released since Man on the Moon II.

If 2012’s WZRD was a mistake, 2013’s entirely self-produced Indicud was a misstep. If 2014’s Satellite Flight was a stumble, 2015’s seemingly peyote-fueled and Neil Young–inspired Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven was a running jump off of a cliff. I could go into detail about how, on a skimpy album where his voice was given the admittedly impossible task of carrying each song, Cudi’s warbled monotone shot only passing glances at the proper key, or how the whole thing sounds like it was recorded inside of a literal dumpster. But really, all you need to know is that there’s a song on Speedin’ Bullet titled “Adventures,” on which the phrases “her vagina is moist” and “no more chicken sandwiches” both pop up in the space of a single verse.

Passion is a good Kid Cudi album. There’s a mix of rapping, singing, and wounded moaning. It occupies a dreary alternate reality in which everything is overcast by one massive, tinny cumulonimbus cloud. With a hat tip to Mike Will Made It, whose production on “All In” sounds like drifting aimlessly through a space nebula with no helmet, Passion’s sound is largely the work of Mike Dean and Plain Pat, who helped spark Cudi’s career and whose fingerprints are blessedly all over this, his sixth studio album.

At 19 tracks and with an absurd 87-minute runtime, Passion is overlong and feels like a slog when Cudi’s signature sound isn’t pushed into newer or at least slightly different spaces, which is more or less the entire back half of the album. Some ideas are needlessly dragged out — “Releaser” feels like a five-and-a-half-minute interlude that obscures the first of two André 3000 appearances.

Regardless of those shortcomings, Passion is worth at least a Gilmore Girls Netflix special of your time because, for the first time in a long time, Cudi sounds like himself — the Cudi that first captured our imaginations and had us listening to Ratatat and wearing fake Louis Vuitton coin purses. On “By Design” (currently my favorite, though that’s subject to change) André hints at why that could be: “When you think too much you’re removing what’s moving,” he raps, constructing an amalgam of all sorts of truisms, from “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” to what Chris Mensch at Genius thinks is a reference to famous French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “Perfection is achieved not when there’s nothing more to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.”

Of course, perfection isn’t possible, but with the shuffling of a few things, excellence and inner harmony can be.

Two weeks ago Russell Simmons was completely and utterly wrong, but not alone in his complete and utter wrongness:

Discussing mental health still isn’t a thing that black people do particularly well. There’s a general disinclination to square the issue up and stare it down, and an outsize amount of judgment for those that do; especially black men. We all share blame in this, but our elders did sow in us the persistent idea that you, yes you, have sole ownership and responsibility over and for your happiness. “But … science,” you’d say. In more religious families, parents may suggest that you apply prayer, the universal solvent. In other families, your night terrors and crippling anxiety would probably be brushed aside with a suggestion that you “man up.” Without resources or anyone to talk to, you might resign to do just that, right up to the realization that “manning up” is literally killing you.

Amid the last of numerous pushbacks for Passion — finally released last Friday — and in a public expression of vulnerability more radical than perhaps all his previous ones put together, Cudi did what a lot of us can’t do, or won’t: He outlined that suffocating sense of not being able to be yourself, even when you’re alone. The feeling that your life is a vaudeville play that you’re watching from the back wall of the auditorium while the exit sign glows bright, but the lead actor’s face isn’t quite punchable enough and his voice isn’t quite grating enough for you to leave just yet. And then he admitted it to the world. “I am not at peace,” Cudi wrote in a wrenching note on Facebook in early October, announcing that he’d checked himself into rehab for depression and suicidal urges. “I haven’t been since you’ve known me.”

Cudi’s self-imposed exile came after a righteous and windy tweetstorm decrying his contemporaries — namely Drake and Kanye West — for … something. Maybe for their community approach to song-making or their artist-as-brand approach to their careers; maybe for the time-honored act of borrowing game and not acknowledging where they got it from. Cudi addresses these industry issues on “Does It,” where he strafes over the many and various maddening realities of the music industry (“Won’t be a drone clone, half-hearted / Sheep in the heard, brainwashed to low cause”).

It seems as though Cudi scrapes only the surface of his inner turmoil on Passion, even at its protracted length. “Swim in the Light” is as deep as he truly gets, wailing in light Auto-Tune that “you can try to numb the pain but it’ll never go away,” and that too is hackneyed. On “Wounds” he can offer only that you “dig deeper” to find yourself. On “The Commander” he tells us that we can’t run from who we are, and that there’s no need to “lie into your emerald soul.” We aren’t given a map to respite or self-actualization, and we get only a fraction of what arriving there feels like.

Cudi’s lyrical bag has never been that deep — he’s traditionally content to flesh out unfinished ideas with hums — but it could be that he can’t tell us how to “get there” because he hasn’t made it himself. Perhaps making the album and performing it is, in itself, its own response to the struggles of this past year.

What we could be certain of at the time of his Facebook message was that Cudi was not OK, and, regardless of what someone like Uncle RUSH would have you believe, it wasn’t his fault, nor could he have pulled himself out of it on his own. And so Cudi got help. And he came back.

A little over a month after checking himself into rehab, Cudi bounced around the Long Beach Convention Center stage at ComplexCon in a drapey henley and a souvenir jacket. The first of a medley of songs he performed was Passion’s lead single, “Frequency,” which, in fewer and more blunted words, is about finding inner peace — the elusive “frequency.”

Beaming from ear to ear, he settled in, leaning into that signature low, crude, and somewhat Gregorian hrrrrmwahohwahhhoahhhhhhhwnnn, leaning out only to yell, “IT FEELS GOOD TO BE FREEEEEEE.”