Kid Cudi's ever-evolving discography has objectively shaped the current soundscape of hip-hop.
Kid Cudi stepped into hip-hop at a time when ringtone rap and autotune-heavy club jams were the bread and butter of the scene – easy-going, party-heavy songs like Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” and Flo Rida’s “Low” reigned the top hip-hop charts in 2008. But when Cudi put out A Kid Named Cudi in the summer of that year, it sounded nothing like the work of his popular contemporaries.
Consciously going against the grain may seem like a death wish for any artist hopeful to make it in the music world. But since his debut mixtape was released, Cudi has performed world tours. Sold millions of records. Worked with all your favorite artists and producers. In so doing, his ever-evolving discography has objectively shaped the current soundscape of hip-hop.
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What separated Kid Cudi early on wasn’t merely a deviation from the popular sounds of the moment, however, it was the subject matter and topics he openly chose to tackle on wax. The issues he rapped and sung about were not at all unique to him, they were problems that resonated strongly with those in a similar age group to him. And because artists at the time chose to veer away from such touchy subjects in their lyrics for one reason or another, Cudi wound up becoming a singular voice for his generation.
AKNC, along with early-career entries Man On The Moon: The End of Day and Man On The Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager were vivid meditations on what was previously taboo in hip-hop culture: mental health, loneliness, substance abuse, lack of confidence, paranoia, the pursuit for inner peace. In a genre that historically favored those who flaunted their wealth and excess, Cudi helped establish a lane where the unspoken would be heard, vulnerabilities were laid bare – not for the sake of embarrassment, but to cultivate the power of shared empathy.
LISTEN: Kid Cudi "Down N Out" off "A Kid Named Cudi" mixtape (2008)
The themes and aesthetics of the Man On The Moon series conveyed a sense of otherworldliness to his music – a space to escape one’s own reality for a brief moment in order to relate and empathize with Cudi in his world. Sprawling synths, electronic ambience and orchestral touches rounded out the production that accompanied his detailed accounts and personal lyricism. This specific feeling didn’t just come through in his own work, either. His early connection and collaboration with Kanye West concurrently propelled the de-stigmatization of these taboo issues within the hip-hop world. The influences and work behind 808s & Heartbreak is intimately Kid Cudi’s to claim, and the two would meet again, later down the road, to further push that vision forward.
But the commercial and critical worlds didn’t welcome Cudi with open arms, nor did they immediately recognize what his work would do to impact hip-hop in the years to come. Outside of a few hits, Cudi never dominated the song charts with the longstanding power of a conventional hip-hop star. Critics ridiculed his characteristic singing style as off-key and panned his early attempts at producing beats on Indicud as amateur. His swings at crossing over into other genres like rock – carrying with him a deep admiration for grunge icons like Kurt Cobain – through projects like WZRD and Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven, were critically-humiliated and written off.
Yet, Cudi never gave in. He never changed up his mission plan in order to sell more records or appease critics and dismissive audiences. Artists from every corner of the music world, from Andre 3000 to Selena Gomez to Kendrick Lamar, continued to work with Cudi, recognizing his artistic ability and creative power. He kept on releasing albums that remained true to his musical identity. On the personal end, checking into rehab around the release of Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ was perhaps the bravest choice an artist of his stature could have made – an acknowledgement that the need to ask for help shouldn’t be seen as a daunting task.
And amidst those intense moments of darkness, came hints of light.
LISTEN: Kid Cudi "Erase Me" featuring Kanye West off "Man on the Moon II" album (2010)
2018’s Kids See Ghosts, a seven-track collaboration project with West, reached the critically-acclaimed highs that Cudi had long been denied, with progressive, psychedelic rock influences – a refinement of the SB2H sounds he was previously criticized for. It spotlighted the artists’ struggles with mental health and personal hardships, despite the immense amount of success both have experienced in their respective careers. "THE SCOTTS," a collaboration single with Houston rapper Travis Scott released in 2020, gave Cudi a career-first number-one single. Not that those things really mattered in the same way that spreading his message did.
Recent songs like "4 Da Kidz" off Man On The Moon III: The Chosen find Cudi actively recognizing his current place in hip-hop as a father-like figure, a role he has embraced gracefully. When he performed “Sad People” on Saturday Night Live back in April, donning an Off-White dress as an homage to Kurt Cobain, he wanted to inspire confidence within the younger generations to be themselves and do what they want to do on their own terms, according to a conversation he later had on HBO’s The Shop about his motive behind the outfit choice.
Kid Cudi rocks the infamous red crop top at Coachella 2014 - Tim Mosenfelder/WireImage/Getty Images
Cudi has nothing left to prove. He’s won. The fact that he is still around today and seems to be living through a musical peak in his career – after years of turbulence – means the world to his millions of fans. His creative influence seeps endlessly throughout today’s hottest artists, from Travis Scott to Tyler, The Creator. His career continues to be a case study on the power of resilience after one has braved the metaphorical storms of life, both personally and professionally.