For an artist that has been so hugely influential, Kid Cudi has always seemed to exist somewhat outside of the hip-hop scene. 808’s & Heartbreak wouldn’t exist without him, and by extension, neither would Drake and the entire R&B/rap crossover genre that exists today. However, it’d be a surprise if Cudi ever featured on a Drake song. He’s generally a reclusive artist, more likely to release an amateurish rock album like Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven than the melodic hip-hop he’s actually good at, which is what makes his new album, Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ so refreshing: it sounds like Cudi is finally back to being himself.
Of course, that does come with the main caveat that old-style Kid Cudi is a fairly flawed musician. Man on the Moon: The End of Day is a solid record, but it and all his releases that followed have been plagued by overly ambitious runtimes and poor lyricism. Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ suffers that same curse, with it’s 90-plus minute length requiring a thematic and lyrical depth Cudi just doesn’t have. He has always rapped about depression and anxiety, which are obviously very worthy and personal subjects, but he rarely has much to say about them that’s at all creative. He’ll say something like “since a kid, I’ve been haunted by visions of death”, but that’s as deep as he’ll go. He tells you about his misery ad nauseam, but never in a way that’s particularly poetic or interesting, so it just becomes a wash of sadness, and the listener can never feel like they’re getting to know the man underneath it.
Whilst Cudi’s lyrics don’t hold up to close inspection, his production and soundscapes certainly do. Mike Dean and Cudi himself handle the majority of the production, and they have hit upon a deeply atmospheric, impossibly detailed sound. Whirring synths and glittering effects make up most of the tracks, with the Mort Garson-sampling Baptised in Fire working as something of a template for the rest of the album’s sound. It’s vintage Cudi, with more of an emphasis on texture, which suits him well.
Cudi’s closest contemporary is probably Travis Scott, and not just because they share a style of autotuned sing-rapping. They both explore similar sounds and themes (although Cudi’s song explore much darker emotional territory), but what sets them apart is also what makes Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ worth a listen in spite of its clumsy lyrics and comical length: Cudi doesn’t need bombast to make his music fun, because its sound is so intricately detailed that he succeeds in spite of himself. It’s a flawed, overlong, messy album, but it’s also the best one Cudi has made in years, and it’s a good sign that he might be on the right track back towards fulfilling his potential.