This probably isn’t the best week for a Kanye West protege to drop his debut full-length album, but don’t feel too badly for Kid Cudi — with a couple of hit singles (the ubiquitous “Day ‘N’ Nite” and brilliantly crude “Make Her Say”) and one of the most heavily buzzed-about releases of the fourth quarter, he didn’t need to worry about any controversies dogging his label chief. In order to turn Man on the Moon: The End of Day into a platinum seller, all he had to do was turn in a halfway decent record.
Which is exactly what he’s done.
Cudi’s downcast confessional bent has prompted some to peg his music as “emo rap,” which isn’t far from the mark, I guess — although you won’t hear any Chris Carrabba-style screaming in Man on the Moon. Instead, you’ll get a whole lot of analog (or at least analog-sounding) synths and primitive drum programs, along with lyrics about loneliness and frustration. It’s basically a slightly more sonically expansive cousin to West’s 808s and Heartbreak, only Cudi doesn’t have to rely on Auto-Tune shenanigans to get his point across. On the other hand, given how often he uses monotonous melodies, and double-tracks his vocals on top of them, you may actually pine for a little Auto-Tune, which is Man‘s biggest problem — it takes some really nifty, attentive production and wastes it on songs that, by and large, didn’t deserve the effort.
Man on the Moon is, loosely speaking, a concept album, divided into a series of “acts” that add up to 15 songs and just shy of an hour, but unless you really want to take the time to absorb Common’s periodic narration, you don’t need to concern yourself with the narrative arc; basically, all you need to do is settle in for a lot of thudding, vaguely ominous-sounding backing tracks, running from one to the next behind Cudi’s perpetually sleepy flow. (It’s sort of the hip-hop equivalent of Sting’s Soul Cages, with a lot of lyrics about weed added to the mix.) Pervasive as the bleak mood is, Cudi’s a sharp enough producer to differentiate his songs, even if only by slight degrees. “Soundtrack 2 My Life” stretches like taffy; “Simple As…” rides a martial beat and sing-song melody; “Heart of a Lion” utilizes a skittering, bass-heavy arrangement; “Sky Might Fall” wraps its stuttering melody and breathless verse around an army of buzzing synths…you get the idea. Still, it does start to feel a little monotonous after awhile; if Moon is more sonically expansive than 808s, it also feels a little more claustrophobic, at least for its first two thirds.
Things start to open up toward the end, with the ’80s arcade noises (and single-tracked lead vocal!) of “Enter Galactic,” and the album gets off a nice, solid closing run with its last five tracks, starting with “Cudi Zone,” which features a synth string section that makes a case for Cudi as the David Foster of hip-hop. By the time you get to “Make Her Say,” which repurposes Lady GaGa’s “Poker Face” as an ode to fellatio, you can’t help wishing the rest of the record had this much humor. Yes, Cudi has shit to deal with, and yes, hearing this kind of honest self-examination in a hip-hop context is refreshing — but it’s been done by other artists too, and they weren’t all so dour. (Case in point: Fatlip’s classic “What’s Up, Fatlip?”) Even the career mopes in Depeche Mode know that musical depression is a game that requires a certain amount of dynamic range. Too much of Man on the Moon feels like you’re trapped in an elevator with a guy who won’t stop telling you about his problems.
Still, as a debut, it leaves Cudi plenty of room to climb — and his already-hot commercial profile more or less guarantees he’ll get the chance to follow it up. You don’t need to own the whole thing unless you’re particularly fond of synthy dirges and bad lyrics (“You don’t really know about the trials of tomorrow/ Rather lay awake in the bed full of sorrow”? Really?), but there are a handful of tracks worth cherry-picking via the online retailer of your choice.