Will Kid Cudi ever find true happiness? That dilemma lies at the crux of Indicud, an album that the mercurial rapper has claimed in interviews is more “positive” than his lonely stoner adventures of yore, but which simply trades inert depression for defiant, defensive “King Wizard” triumphalism. Its cover art displays a maelstrom of fire bracketed by an ornately designed frame, a synthesis of high-art aspirations and uncontrollable fury suitable for the Lord of the Sad and Lonely.
But the real question here is whether you should care at all. It has been over four years since Cudi transfixed a mainstream audience with “Day ‘N Nite” and “Pursuit of Happiness,” the two droll, goofily trippy singles from his debut album, 2009’s Man on the Moon: The End of Day. The second installment in his ad-hoc Man on the Moon series, the following year’s The Legend of Mr. Rager, was actually much better than its predecessor, but it lacked those charming breakout hits. (Last year’s insufferably lugubrious WZRD project is best left unexplored here.) Kid Cudi may claim to love being a cult artist, but he knows that cult artists are in frequent peril of slipping into irrelevance. He aims to avoid that irrelevance by raging against it.
And so, here he spikes his supposed contentment with flashes of self-righteous anger. On “Just What I Am,” he conflates marijuana consumption with a search for God before adding, “Think about all my old friends / Who weren’t my friends all along / Hmph.” On “Unfuckwittable,” he proclaims, “The world is filled with good vibes and that is what I seek / And now I’m feeling more than cool / Yeah, them jokers can’t help me.” But since he doesn’t explain why he’s so upset, it just sounds like haughtiness toward anonymous fools who don’t understand why he prefers to sing-rap in a mumbled croon and pay frequent tribute to his precious alienation. “It’s just me and my niggas, my family, and people that care about me and my fans,” he states plainly at the start of “King Wizard.” “Fuck all these other niggas.”
Cudi’s unrepentant attitude is partly why Indicud sounds so engaging, at least during the album’s sparkling first half. (Sadly, he doesn’t have enough good songs to fill out its hour-plus, 18-track length.) He’s not just mewling piteously in an attempt to win our sympathy; he tells the world to fuck off, and then convinces us why we shouldn’t return the sentiment. His canny sense of melody guides him from the metal-churning, Tricky-inspired boom-bap that girds “The Resurrection of Scott Mescudi” to the MGMT and Adam Sandler samples powering the electro-pop-crushing “Immortal” to the fuzzy noise guitars of “Young Lady” to the soaring prog-house synthesizers that swirl above “Red Eye,” a duet with the Häim sisters that soars through joyously uncomplicated harmony. Unlike other rappers with their corny EDM loops and “molly” sweat lodges, Cudi incorporates electronic sounds into his production. Traces of dubstep flicker through “Just What I Am” and “Mad Solar,” but they sound unobtrusive and wholly absorbed into his moping hip-hop.
There are other cameos. Michael Bolton (yes) indulges his inner Charlie Wilson for “Afterwards (Bring Yo Friends).” Too $hort bumbles around like a dirty old man on “Girls.” RZA is his usual loquacious, offbeat self on “Beez,” save for one great line (“I don’t write songs, grasshopper, I write sceneries”). And Kendrick Lamar fumbles his “Solo Dolo Part II” verse, turning what should be a simple, imaginative rhyme on drug addiction into a bag of sherm sticks, halfway houses, and other convoluted metaphors. And as for our host, for all his navel-gazing, Kid Cudi can be generous. He steps back into a relatively silent producer role for the RZA’s cameo, and on “Brotherhood,” he pays tribute to “My niggas / The brothers that I never had / Made my life a lot less sad” in an ungainly but heartfelt verse. (As a rapper, Kid Cudi is clumsy but effective; appreciators of technique should look elsewhere.) Save for Häim’s star turn and maybe Chip Tha Ripper’s energetic “wakin’, bakin’, contemplatin'” leadoff verse on “Just What I Am,” none of the guest actors distract from the self-mythologizing Kid Cudi and his inner turmoil. And most of the time it’s inner turmoil that beckons you in rather than pushing you out.