Back in July, Kanye West dropped out of the Rolling Loud festival in Miami at the last minute, and Kid Cudi replaced him as the headliner—only to be pelted with water bottles and booed off stage. The crowd anticipating Kanye turned on Cudi for a number of reasons, some understandable, some ridiculous, including some defensiveness about Cudi’s friendship with Pete Davidson, who was dating Kanye’s ex-wife, Kim Kardashian. Long story short, Cudi fumed, and Kanye laughed. This was the lowest blow in their long and dysfunctional partnership, which dates back to 2008 when Cudi signed to Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music label. (The two also made a collaboration album in 2018 called Kids See Ghosts.) It’s a far cry from Kanye hyping Cudi as “the most important artist of the past 10 years” during the Saint Pablo Tour in 2016.
You’d think Kanye, given his massive self-regard, would reserve that distinction for himself. But Cudi, in fact, shaped Kanye’s career just as Kanye shaped Cudi’s and Cudi is generally beloved among millennials, who’ve considered him as a trendsetter, musically and sartorially, for the past decade. Though he blew up with a fistful of pop crossover hits during the late 2000s, Cudi thrived as a singer-songwriter with alt and indie sensibilities. He was deeply diaristic, writing a mythology rather unlike any of his peers. He was the “lonely stoner,” singing lofty lyrics over twinkling space-age production. He wasn’t the best rapper or even the best singer; rather he was the heroic underachiever with a notebook full of blunt poetry, the petulance in his songwriting smoothed out by his hypnotic, incomparable hum.
Lately he’s less distinguished for his solo albums than his collaborations—where he tends to play the junior partner—with Kanye, Travis Scott, and Drake. This despite Cudi often clashing with his most notable peers. He’s feuded on and off with Kanye for several years now and he’s only recently warmed to Drake. Typically, though, he’s off in his own world, tinkering with guitars, smoking, sulking, and humming to himself, if no one else.
This Friday, Kid Cudi released Entergalactic, the title of his latest album as well as his animated TV special on Netflix. Cudi cowrote and stars in the latter project, and coproduced it with Black-ish creator Kenya Barris. This isn’t his first executive credit; last year Cudi coproduced Malcolm & Marie with Sam Levinson, Zendaya, and John David Washington. Over the years he’s been cast in minor roles in a variety of movies (Bill & Ted Face the Music, Don’t Look Up) and series (How to Make It in America, We Are Who We Are). But Entergalactic was Cudi’s passion project—his big, original, unruly multimedia pronouncement. Though conceived as a limited series, Entergalactic has turned out to be a movie in the romantic spirit of its namesake song—about a couple trying shrooms together—from Cudi’s debut album, Man on the Moon. Director Fletcher Moules brought Cudi’s vision to life with bold colors and splashy animation, in a painted CGI style roughly similar to Into the Spider-Verse.
Entergalactic is a rom-com, starring Cudi as the voice actor in the role of Jabari, a young and restless comic book artist with a new job at a major publisher, Cosmic Comics, and a new lease on a beautiful loft in Manhattan. He’s earned his big break on the strength of his signature superhero, Mr. Rager, a gunslinging goliath, whom Jabari thinks of as his alter ego. (Mr. Rager is also an alter ego of Cudi himself, who named his second studio album and one of its singles after the character.) Jabari lives a charmed life of gallery openings and cocktail bars. He smokes weed and lounges in Washington Square Park with his friends Jimmy (Timothée Chalamet) and Ky (Ty Dolla $ign). He briefly—and regretfully—rekindles a romance with his ex-girlfriend, Carmen (Laura Harrier), before developing a crush on his new next-door neighbor, Meadow (Jessica Williams), which launches the whirlwind romance at the heart of Entergalactic. The best friends in both corners coach Jabari and Meadow through the early hesitations and eventual pitfalls. It’s saucy and cute, which is to say, it’s a sharp attitude adjustment for such a dreary rapper and refreshingly effective as such. Netflix’s Entergalactic is a feature-length promotional complement to his latest album, but it’s also a creative breakthrough in its own right.
Still, Entergalactic is the very definition of a vanity project; Jabari is about as flattering as an artist’s self-portrait can get. He’s angsty but nonetheless charismatic. He’s just too edgy and rebellious for the house style (“bright, white, and lite”) at Cosmic Comics, but he’s also too talented for the company to lose. He’s enamored of every woman he encounters, but he’s also loyal to a fault; the love triangle involving Jabari, Meadow, and Carmen is portrayed as just a big misunderstanding. There’s not much subtlety or complexity to Jabari. He’s moody as hell, but his pursuit of happiness sure looks like a joyride to me. His character Mr. Rager joins the ranks of Iron Man and pays the rent on Jabari’s million-dollar apartment. In the end, the beauty and the hypebeast live happily ever after.
Happy endings are rare for Kid Cudi. He built his career by relating to young adults about depression and anxiety. But Entergalactic is an intense, yet tranquil, daydream, complicated by the love triangle, yes, but relieved by the pastels sweeping down the prettiest stretches of New York. Talking to Complex three years ago about the project, Cudi explained his creative outlook on romance. “I’m not somebody who makes lovey-dovey songs,” he said. “If I did write about my relationships, it would’ve been all disasters.” So he developed Entergalactic as a miniseries first, album second, to write himself out of a corner: “I needed something to inspire me to get me there, to wanna write about relationships, and this show did it for me.” It’s easy to read the interview and see Entergalactic as a punk going soft in his late 30s. But Cudi has always openly preferred inner peace to punk rock; he’s always struggling to break free of the druggy, angsty reputation of Mr. Rager. That’s been his life’s work. So here we are.
Ultimately, Entergalactic is Cudi’s best effort in recent years. His discography is the sort that’s likely lost on anyone who didn’t grow up listening to these songs and internalizing them as stoner gospel. Even then, many of his biggest fans would tell you his last few solo albums have been a little less magical and a lot more scattershot than his earlier music. And yet, strangely, Kid Cudi only seems to be more famous, more influential, more essential to understanding a whole decade of hip-hop in retrospect. And Entergalactic is essential to understanding Cudi, the lonely stoner spurned by his mentor, stifled by mid-career expectations, but still scribbling his way to a happy ending.