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Kid Cudi occupies a peculiar space in music - his pioneering brand of emo-rap heavily influenced the sound of today’s heavyweights, such as Drake, Travis Scott and even Cudi’s own mentor, Kanye West. Yet most people either know him for his features on other artists’ songs, or his naughties club hit ‘Day N Nite’, and would struggle to name more than a handful of his solo tracks.
Kid Cudi’s Man on the Moon albums have always dived deep into the topic of mental health, exploring territory that rappers have historically shied away from. They play as concept albums that are loosely based on reality, with Cudi personifying his mental demons as the fearsome ‘Mr. Rager’, and subsequently battling this alter-ego over the course of the project.
This final instalment in the trilogy sees Cudi returning once more to a state of darkness and “dealing with the same pain he had not felt in years”.
Kid Cudi has maintained a successful acting career alongside his music, and he purposefully gives Man on the Moon III the magnitude and drama of a movie soundtrack.
He continues the homage to film by dividing the album into four Acts: in Act 1, Mr. Rager rattles angrily against the cage of Cudi’s mind on electric tracks such as ‘Tequila Shots’ and ‘Dive’, before breaking loose in Act 2 and grabbing the mic with trademark ferocity. This is epitomised by Cudi’s foray into drill music on ‘Show Out’, which features the late New York MC, Pop Smoke, and London’s Skepta.
Even though Cudi is submerged once again into the mental anguish that pervades the original two Man on the Moon projects, something feels different this time around. Although ‘Tequila Shots’ has sobering lines such as “I won’t stop ’til I crash and burn’/Tell my mom I’m sorry”, the hook contains hints of resilience and determination to overcome his demons (“Hear me now, hey, this time I’m ready for it/This fight, this war in me”).
The turning point arrives during ‘Solo Dolo, Pt. III’, which foreshadows the woozier second half of the album that’s to come. It begins with Kid Cudi at rock bottom, documenting his struggles with addiction, loneliness and suicidal thoughts (“Can’t hear me scream/Something twisted in me/Say, ‘I’m waiting to die,’ I cry”). But just over halfway through the song, Cudi’s voice breaks through the synth haze with a little more lucidity, and the lyrics take on a more optimistic sheen (“Lord, he show me that I’m tested and I’m gonna fly/I ain’t slippin’, no, that’s not for me/Be who you are, don’t be nothin’ less, please”).
There’s an interesting shift in religious imagery compared to the start of the album, where Cudi feels frustrated that God is seemingly ignoring his prayers (“Asking God to help ‘em, are you hearing me?” & “Hm, talk to Him, He don’t speak back”). On ‘Solo Dolo, Pt. III’, Cudi begins by talking of being in Hell and waiting for the Devil to come - but then we hear the emphatic return to faith - “He’s calling me” - and this initiates the more hopeful perspective from Cudi in the second half of the song. On one level, Kid Cudi does appear to be talking literally about his faith, but this also seems to represent a sense of acceptance and trust in the path that he is on, rather than agonising over the existential questions that he mentions in Acts 1 and 2.
We see this newfound belief, both in himself and in his journey, at the start of Act 3 on ‘Sad People’, such as in the lines, “Close call, life on the edge/Ah, when the time comes, I’ll find peace”, which he then follows with a defiant mission statement - “I can find love in me”. Acts 3 and 4 are generally lighter in their chosen palettes, but given the fact that the overall mood is one of optimism, it’s impressive the breadth of pain Cudi still manages to document and overcome on these songs. He takes us through grief on ‘Elsie’s Baby Boy (flashback)’ and issues with self-esteem on ‘Lovin’ Me’, which features Phoebe Bridgers. ‘Lovin’ Me’ seems to capture the fundamental message of this project - to express our feelings rather than bottle them up, and to be a little more compassionate towards ourselves (“At times I really didn’t show/What was wrong with me, wrong with me/I told myself I cannot grow/Without lovin’ me”).
Act 3 finds Kid Cudi still struggling with his demons, but seeing glimpses of light and moments of realisation that guide him towards a more peaceful state of mind. It is in Act 4 that he enjoys the spoils of this new freedom, and the celebratory mood of the final four songs feels even more meaningful when they stand in contrast to the intensity of the previous three acts.
‘The Pale Moonlight’ is much more uptempo, with a signature Cudi hook that wriggles itself into your mind - and it would stay there, were it not for the other multitude of ear-worms that litter this project. ‘4 da Kidz’ underlines Cudi’s symbiotic relationship with his fans, and how their support has sustained him through his troubles, as well as an acknowledgment of the impact he’s had on his listeners - if an uber-successful, world-famous rap-star can struggle with his mental health, then it makes it clear that anyone can.
I’m aware that I’ve made this sound like a tragic and intense record, and in many ways it is. But take it from someone who almost exclusively tries to listen to ‘happy music’ - there is plenty of enjoyment to be found amidst the soul-searching of Man on the Moon III. In fact, it is precisely because of the overwhelming sadness that underpins the first three acts, that the final act becomes such a satisfying, full-circle moment.
However, as much as I love the music on this album, the coolest thing about Cudi’s latest offering has to be the artwork. Although it’s kind of a cliche, I really do think it epitomises the feel of the project as a whole - dark and ominous, whilst at the same time exploding with colour and vibrancy.
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