The forgettable genius of Kid Cudi

Kid Cudi at Lollapalooza in 2015.

Kid Cudi at Lollapalooza in 2015. (Photo by Steve C. Mitchell/Invision/AP, File)

Remember Kid Cudi?

The guy who was rap-singing about how his coping mechanisms shift between “Day ‘n’ Nite” back in 2009? About feeling so alone, so solo, he's become “Mr. Solo Dolo”?

At the time, the phrase “rap-singing” probably would’ve come off pejoratively – no one was committing to sad sack thoughtfulness then. Now that everyone is, somehow Cudi's not remembered as one of its originators. In fact, before his latest record, Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin', Cudi went from innovative hip hop darling and Kanye protege to a renegade who chased innovation into good intentioned corners of experimental unpopularity, where only his niche fan base followed.

Alongside Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak, Cudi helped both create emo rap at the end of the ‘00s. But Cudi went his own arduous way, tilting against windmills of commercial compromise and creative self-indulgence and illusions of contentment, returning to the recording studio with big, tough feelings and thoughts. He was riding atop a towering pop wave, then he drifted out with the tides.

Maybe Cudi is a fluke who struck the purest gold once, or an artist principled enough to cling to his vision and his cult following, or a genius who lacks the charisma to become a superstar. Cudi is an enigma. That's his charm, and that’s the nature of his legacy.

Kanye led hip hop's current wave of synth-based confessional lyricism; Drake, Future, and Young Thug carried it forward. But Cudi was there at the beginning, arguably before Kanye. His first mixtape, A Kid Named Cudi, came out six months before 808s, and Cudi was talking that man on the moon shit before Weezy decided he was a Martian. When Cudi told us he felt so isolated it was like he wasn’t even on Earth, he mapped worlds of a loner’s interiority previously uncharted in hip hop.

Yet we don’t think of Cudi as a pioneer. Like Leibniz or Steve Wozniak or Tex Winter, Cudi is the organic manifestation of a field's revolutionary idea, the sort of innovator we always need to be reminded of. Without Newton or Steve Jobs or Phil Jackson (or Kanye West) calculus and computer phones and the triangle offense (and sing-songy trip-pop) might exist, but they might not be as central to our experience. Who is more of a genius – the lonely originator of an idea or its charismatic popularizer?

I think that’s why I think Cudi snapped last year, first launching into his vehement tweetstorm against Ye and Drake, then retreating into treatment for depression. That’s why, well before that, he left GOOD Music and Kanye's right side, and that’s why he left behind the synthy wave he started. Creatively, he just ran away. Until last year, that is, when he dropped a synthy, Gregorian chant-y record of pure emotional rap. Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin' is so clean and so elegant, almost simple by Cudi's standards, but it’s proof that when Cudi focuses, only Kanye does the ominous singy/ synthy shit better.

Emo rap is so established now that it’s come to mean almost everything. Both overwrought codeine confessional and dread-snapping molly-moshing turn-ups share the same moody, synthy language. The style has recognizable, performative markers that signal “emo rap” without requiring any thought or effort. That creepy, xanied-out face-palming and minimal eye contact and grungey-grimey aesthetics – it’s all theatrics to compensate for there not being much there.

But listen to Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin' and you’ll immediately notice Cudi's deft touch. That why, after Cudi snapped at Kanye and Drake and the entire industry and its fans, everyone had a few retorts and jokes, but ultimately everyone wished Cudi well, and now he and Kanye are now reportedly in Japan working on a project. The snap and, more importantly, the album, served as the reminder we needed. every now and again. Because Cudi remains a genius, no matter how often we forget him.

Kid Cudi
Where: Myth
When: 8 p.m. Mon. Nov. 6
Tickets: All ages; $39.50/$47.50; more info here