While hip-hop culture undergoes its most profound transformation since gangsta rap took over from Native Tongues as the dominant style in the early 90s, many listeners’ greatest concern is whether the new generation of rappers–among whom Kid Cudi is one the first to have a major label release–can produce music as sonically pleasurable as their predecessors. In the case of Cleveland native and New York transplant Cudi, the skepticism is understandable. The mixtape that caught the attention of Kanye West and led to a contract with his G.O.O.D. Music label, A Kid Named Cudi, is equal parts rap (mostly of the laid-back, girl problems and getting high variety), indie-rock, electronica and a kind of spacey sing-song spoken word style that occasionally resembles R&B. It’s a wildly unpredictable and uneven experiment, but trippy highlights like “Embrace the Martian” and the break-out hit “Day N Nite” (which has been expanded by a verse on the new album) prove that when Cudi’s crazy hybrid of styles works, it’s very enjoyable.
Improbably, parsing Man on the Moon: End of Day is even more challenging than processing Cudi’s mixtape. It’s a rap album in the same way that Common’s Electric Circus, Andre 3000’s The Love Below, Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere and Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreak were rap records: its relationship to hip-hop is fairly tenuous, but it would make even less sense in any other musical category. With Kanye as executive producer and Common as narrator here, their forays into experimental hip-hop seem to have had especially substantial influences on Cudi’s debut.
Much of the album deals in sparse, psychedelic environments that remind of Electric Circus. Too often this makes for over-earnest and boring tracks, like the lullaby of an opener, “In My Dreams (Cudder Anthem),” with its tiresome symphonic samples and insistently monotonous verses, or the obsessively smooth and hushed stoners’ theme “Hyyerr.” On more dramatic forays into mystical musical experimentation, like the melancholic “Solo Dolo (Nightmare)” or the weeded, poppy space romance “Enter Galactic (Love Connection Pt. 1),” Cudi’s myriad influences and allusions reach a more successful and compelling harmony. The similarly upbeat closer, “Up, Up, and Away (The Wake and Bake Song)” finally achieves the kind of stubborn optimism you’d expect from a young rap star just as the album ends.
The influence of Kanye’s recent turn to polished, squeaky-clean electronic production with wild bleeps and deep bass also recurs throughout Cudi’s album. It powers Emile’s rich, synth-suffused beat for “Soundtrack 2 My Life,” an enjoyable autobiographic song despite the slightly irksome naïveté of Cudi’s heartfelt chorus: “I’ve got some issues that nobody can see/and all of these emotions are pouring out of me.” The retro electronic sound also works surprisingly well on “My World,” where his bouncy off-the-cuff delivery has him sounding like Buck 65.
Kanye’s two beats–the epic “Sky Might Fall” that would sound right at home on 808s, and the delightfully retro, Lady Gaga-sampling second single “Make Her Say“–are among the record’s strongest tracks.
The Brooklyn electro-rock duo Ratatat also provides a couple beats with very mixed results. “Alive” is a weirdly captivating nightmare vision of fated romance that makes an improbably awesome tonal shift halfway through. The album’s third single “Pursuit of Happiness,” features MGMT and doesn’t come off so well. It never quite reaches the ecstatic heights it seems to be grabbing after, losing much of its momentum in falsetto verses and a spectacularly surreal bridge that peters out into nothing.
With this erratic mix of failed and successful experiments, Man on the Moon is the kind of eccentric adventure you’d expect from a successful rapper several albums into his career. It’s easily the most risky hip-hop debut in years, but it’s hard to imagine Cudi’s gamble paying off. It takes about five listens before the album starts to make sense, and even then nearly half of it never does. Cudi’s obviously talented and has some unique interests and tastes, and one can only hope that he’ll stick around long enough to synthesize them more successfully than he does here.