Below is a feature on how Kid Cudi evolved his sound on his new album, Man on the Moon III: The Chosen. To hear the full story of the making of the album and legacy of the Man on Moon series, check out this week’s episode of The Ringer Music Show.
Rarely is good rapping actually good because of the technical aspects of rapping. What many conceive as the bedrock of the artform—lyrics, metaphors, cadence, and wordplay—are merely the cogs and bolts of a much larger machine. The reason you sound like Dr. Seuss with a head cold rapping and someone like Young Thug could make reading the phone book sound heavenly is mostly intangible. Most people try and a rarefied few don’t. It’s why Jay-Z can rebuke all writing utensils or why Playboi Carti is a millionaire off an infant voice.
For a fleeting moment in the late 2000s, Kid Cudi possessed this quality in spades. He could spar with peak Lloyd Banks one moment and make the prospect of freestyling over a Vampire Weekend song sound far more appealing than it actually is the next. His style of rapping was more so a mushed and marbled form of melodic talking. The legacies of most rappers rest on specific verses or iconic punch lines; Cudi has an entire subgenre of humming videos on YouTube.
At the height of Cudi’s power, he’d take a song like N.E.R.D’s “Spaz”—a single best known for soundtracking a Zune commercial—and turn it into a goofy, freewheeling, tour de force of blog-era rapping. Only a very small but significant group heard “Cudi Spazzin’,” but nevertheless it’s a prime example of the type of artist Scott Mescudi was before the baggage of celebrity set in. No other rappers are willing to begin a verse with, “Whoa, Nellie, I don’t even think they ready / They flow is too shitty, not me I can’t get with it” and within the same verse try to rhyme “mami” with “edamame” before admitting they’re friends with the lead singer from Gym Class Heroes.
“Cudi Spazzin’” didn’t save anyone’s life, but chances are if you’ve ever met a Kid Cudi fan they will say his first two major label albums, 2009’s Man on the Moon: The End of Day and 2010’s Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager, did. There is very little difference between Kid Cudi the artist and Scott Mescudi the man. His lyrics about wasted nights, making bad decisions, and coping with mental health issues were reflected on social media, blog headlines, and TMZ videos. The 20-something wasn’t much older than the high school teens that devoured his escapades in those earlier years. Many of them never let go of that nostalgic yearning for a man who so perfectly captured those years of angst. The most beloved hits of that era—“Soundtrack 2 My Life,” “Pursuit of Happiness,” and “Mr. Rager”—also tended to be the ones that featured the most dramatic hooks, melodies, and humming.
That’s what makes the beginning of Man on the Moon III: The Chosen—Cudi’s new album released last Friday—slightly jarring. MOTM 3’s first full song doesn’t begin with a swell of hums or a tear-jerk melody. Instead, Cudi chooses a more pedestrian option that’s actually radical for him. He raps.
“Tequila Shots,” produced by Dot Da Genius and Take a Daytrip, sounds like a surge of cosmic energy. The tempo is fast, the drums are intense, and the song doesn’t relent. Cudi’s lyrical approach is aligned with the first two Man on the Moon albums, with rhymes about “demons creepin’” and “serenity,” but “Tequila Shots” refuses to be anything besides a banger. It’s a move the Cudi of yore would’ve rebuffed.
“I feel like he evolved. He wouldn’t have rapped on beats like that maybe six years ago, like 100 percent,” Dot Da Genius, Man on the Moon III’s executive producer, says over a Zoom call. Dot Da Genius provided Cudi with his first hit, 2007’s “Day ’n’ Nite,” and has been one of his most consistent collaborators and friends since the beginning of his career. “He opened up during this whole time period and just kept an open mind, and he killed it. I think he gave a stellar performance on all the records.”
The MOTM 3 creators divided the album into four acts: Return 2 Madness, The Rager, The Menace, Heart of Rose Gold and Powers. The first half features high-intensity beats for Cudi to rap over, while the latter half is more melodic and attuned to the first two albums.
“I think what’s different is on previous Man on the Moons, you would’ve got hit with a more introspective vibe earlier on in the album and then this album, like I said, Cudi wanted to come out swinging,” Dot says. “So for like the first six, seven tracks, right up until ‘Show Out,’ it’s mainly all energy.”
In retrospect, it’s hard not to see the Man on the Moon series as a creative prison. Those first to albums codified the Kid Cudi sound—downtempo, haunting ballads and emotional screeds about addiction, death, and depression—for himself and a generation. But as the myth of Cudi rose, so too did his knack for rapping. The heavenly hums and melodies stayed, but the bars were taken out back and given a couple of symbolic rounds to the head. Once you make an album that an entire age group elevates to mythical status, how do you escape from those confines? The answer for Man on the Moon III: The Chosen was to unify Cudi’s divergent skills and refine it for a new era.
Cudi’s resurgence as a rapper is partially due to the update of Man on the Moon’s sound. David Biral and Denzel Baptiste, the duo behind Take a Daytrip, were in high school when the first Cudi records were released. Over the next decade, their irreverent melodies and chest-rattling drums defined viral hits like 2017’s “Mo Bamba” and 2019’s “Panini.” When Biral and Baptiste first began working with Cudi, he asked them to brainstorm what his own version of “Mo Bamba” might sound like. Instead of the wild orchestral flourishes or the ornate compositions of the first two Man on the Moon projects, the Take a Daytrip and Dot Da Genius beats that anchor the project have a straightforward brilliance. While the melodies still have celestial flashes that harken back to Cudi’s obsession with space, the drums are heavy and intense.
“Our first moments of hearing the Cudi hum, hearing him think of the words, and then actually sing,” Biral says. “The Cudi rap flow is just, he has his own world when it comes to the way that he raps. And I think just for us working with a legend at the level as Cudi for when we were experiencing some of these moments for the first time was just like, ‘Oh my God.’”
Across Man on the Moon III, Cudi and Co. make incremental tweaks to the Cleveland rapper’s more rigid formula and give it a sense of propulsion. His spiritual successors—Travis Scott, Juice WRLD, Lil Uzi Vert—spent a decade shaving down the baroque bombast of those early G.O.O.D. Music releases into something simpler and more indebted to the immediacy of Atlanta’s trap music. On songs like “Another Day” and “She Knows This,” Cudi layers his verses with ad-libs, and his vocals sound more distorted and robotic than ever.
“A bunch of times it was like, ‘All right, let’s just get it down. If it’s not perfect, blah, blah, blah.’ But even some of the beats themselves have imperfections that we ended up being like, ‘Oh wow, that’s fire.’ Because we did it so fast, unlike the production for each individual track,” Baptiste says. “Just hearing him go back to the rapping stuff and mixing it with the melodic thing. And I think it really highlighted how much Cudi influenced this entire generation of rapping and singing and going back and forth. And it was just like, ‘OK, look, this is the godfather of that sound.’ Reinterpreting it and flipping it again in his own way and reflecting it back on everything that has transpired since he’s been putting music out.”
There’s nothing quite like wanting a rapper to do “the thing,” that one singular talent or collection of work they seem intent on withholding from the world out of spite or indifference. Cudi’s wrestled with that himself. “After Speeding Bullet 2 Heaven, I was like, ‘I don’t know when I’m going to do another album.’ People shitted on that album so much like, ‘I don’t know when,’” Cudi told Zane Lowe. “I had to make sure that what I was doing was what I was doing. If I was really making Man on the Moon III, if that’s where I was going with it, could it be done? Did I feel in my heart of hearts that I could do better than the first two?”
Recently, it seems as if Cudi has been crawling back from the critical brink. For years, he seemed uninterested in merely giving the audience what they wanted. On albums like WZRD and Speeding Bullet 2 Heaven, he sang, warbled, and screeched, experimenting on the margins when most of his peers were happy to update their sound for easy chart success. But it’s hard not to see songs like “Reborn” from 2018’s Kanye West collab Kids See Ghosts as prescient. On the chorus, Cudi sang, “I’m so, I’m so reborn, I’m movin’ forward,” and creatively, he has. In May, he received his first no. 1 song with “The Scotts,” which he recorded with Travis Scott, and Man on the Moon III is projected to sell 175,000 album equivalent units in its first week.
“Man, Cudi’s for the people. He’s also very experimental. So he will take a risk and try something that is not clear to the mainstream if it’s a hit or not or whatever, he’s never really concerned himself with that,” Dot says. “I think the energy is different now. The energy is just different overall because of the pandemic and everything. If you think about it, it’s affected everybody differently. We’ve all had to sit down and focus and think about things, think about how we’re approaching things. And I think along with that and other things that unfolded in his life, his music is really honed in.”
For so many people, Man on the Moon III was supposed to be a return to the past, but the album’s ultimate success is how willing its creators were in bringing Cudi to the present.