Album review: Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin' by Kid Cudi

Album review: Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin' by Kid Cudi

Scott Mescudi has been a mainstay in the hip/hop community over the years and his latest record attempts to draw back on the original success he enjoyed in this genre

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Charlie Brown

Ever since he blessed his fans with the up-tempo celebratory 'Surfin', Kid Cudi's new release has been on the radars of many a hip/hop enthusiast. 

Instead of pleasing the masses, in recent years Scott Mescudi has detailed his desire to create music closer to his heart, inspired by guitar greats like Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain

Except, only the Cudi fans with rose-tinted glasses could really be on board with his 2015 release - Speedin' Bullet 2 Heaven. Despite its alternative flavour, one can only be left tasting bitterness from Mescudi's attempt at grudge singing.

Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin' - shortened: PPDS - drew a much wider audience with its lead single Surfin'; the Pharrell Williams produced sound stirred the melting pot of hope that Cudi's long-awaited return to his original sound was nigh.

'Frequency', another lead single, didn't have the same response from casual listeners - but even so, still manages to feel very reminiscent of Mescudi's earlier releases. 

With PPDS being the sixth studio album to come out of Cudi's long line of work, it begs the question whether he could make an accomplished return down the path of hip/hop and rap after years of purposely steering clear.Cudi performing for a New York crowd in 2011. Photo: Stephen Lovekin

Cudi performing for a New York crowd in 2011. Photo: Stephen Lovekin

The story of the 'Man on the Moon' so far

If you ask most people unaware of the 'man on the moon' what they associate the Cleveland-born artist with, they'll tell you about his ever-present hit 'Day n Nite' - remixed by Crookers to gain even more radio play. 

Dig a little deeper into the discography though and you'll find plenty of hits amongst emotionally-ridden classics. Ultimately creating music that vividly portrays an artist's own struggles can also create a large and incredibly loyal fanbase - in Mescudi's case this came to life. 

On his first commercial release - Man on the Moon: The End of Day (2009) - Mescudi is able to find the right moments to be introspective, whilst also creating a sound unique to his music. 

One perfect example of this is the timeless fan-favourite 'Soundtrack 2 My Life' in which Cudi explores his own depression, paranoia and drug-abuse; towards the end he simply comes to the conclusion that suicide would be a "happy ending".

Unsteady guitar riffs mixed over hip/hop flavoured beats are showcased here - the best recipe for a Cudi record.

Something that Mescudi likes to do is split his albums into different moods. Tracklisting shows the separate acts; you can find darker days in Cudi's life with 'Solo Dolo' and 'My World'. More uplifting moments coated in drug-use - see 'Sky Might Fall' or 'Cudi Zone' - happen to be towards the tail-end of MOTM.  

The strangest thing about the chart success of Day n Nite has to be people's idea that it's a carefree, jovial track. By no means was Cudi attempting to depict a perfect life; he contrasts two sides of his loneliness in the 'day' and 'night', only enjoying life whilst 'freeing himself' at night as a "lonely stoner". On the other hand, the day provides a "silly game" in which searching for "peace" proves to finish Mescudi last in the game of life. 

Cudi has gone on record as saying this music video for the remix was not released with his permission, and you can see why. 

Day n Nite's original video exhibits a darker tone towards drug-use and its spiralling control on the human mind. 

Guitar influences start to show 

Only a year later Mescudi released his second project Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager

'Erase Me' was the first single released from it and although its corny lyrics may not be Cudi's best lines, you can't help but be taken away by the toe-tapping instrumentals. 

Starring Kanye West, the music video for Erase Me has a clear Hendrix influence. 

Each song on MOTM2 exudes a different deeply held emotion - even more so than its predecessor. 

Where Cudi gives way to radio-hit material on MOTM in the form of 'Pursuit of Happiness' and 'Make Her Say', the same can't be said for its follow-up. 

Especially when diving into the deep end of this project, as Mescudi does quite literally dive into his own psyche. He details his own feelings of worthlessness on 'Ghost' and closes with 'Trapped in My Mind' to show the audience the progress he made in previous years was to no avail.

Mood-wise, it's a total reverse of the somewhat self-indulgent ending on MOTM.

Cudi's everlasting impact 

Mescudi will always be known first for his rather open heart being displayed throughout his discography. 

But perhaps what should also go down in history is his impact on the revolution of West's musical journey.

It's not a secret that Yeezy had a massive part to play in Cudi's life - he has always cited the times growing up in New York working in Bape, a clothes store. Listening to Ye's music inspired him to work at becoming the successful artist we see today - he even met West in the store on one occasion.

What's most shocking is the climb from fan to friend and collaborator. In 2008, 808's & Heartbreak saw West completely turn away from his previous success in rap. 

Sparse sets of electronic beats accompanied Ye's revolutionary autotune. But one man who was responsible for laying the groundwork in lyrics and the emotional style will always be Mescudi. 

Having worked on several tracks and even featuring in the album's opening track 'Welcome to Heartbreak' Cudi's presence can be felt within its entirety. 

This album changed hip/hop for good, suddenly a new wave of emotion-driven rap was born - most notably Canadian-rapper Drake, who has since enjoyed year on year of progress starting with the equally sparse mixtape So Far Gone (2009).

Modern-day music may not have been the same without this change in tide from one of the greatest artists of the last decade.

Mr. West, that is. 

Kanye West has always been a massive influence in Mescudi's career.
Kanye West has always been a massive influence in Mescudi's career. Photo: Getty / Daniel Boczarski
 

Going independent 

Perhaps this switch from adhering to the masses to a more independent driven scope was what made Cudi eventually leave West's record label G.O.O.D Music in 2013.

Even going back two years prior to this, Fools Gold - a record label created by Mescudi himself - was dissolved, leaving behind loyal yet talented producers in Plain Pat and Emile Haynie.

Evidently, their talent was sorely missed on Indicud (2013), the third studio album out of Cleveland. 

Cudi may like to believe - as he tweeted - that this was his 2001, but unfortunately comparing yourself to arguably the best producer of all-time in Dr. Dre will only end in disappointment. 

Guest vocals from the best of rap; Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky and RZA; couldn't mask over the unwarranted run-time and rudimental production - the first seven tracks happen to actually be well thought-out and decent, but the same can't be said for the next 11.

Where Cudi's first two albums have a purpose and an introspective theme, Indicud's personality lies within lengthy messy production. Clearly setting yourself the task of doing it all can lead to the lyrics having to take a back seat - as is evident throughout.  

Moments where things come together and make sense, in terms of purposeful lines clouded by heavy instruments, include the lately listed 'Cold Blooded' - misplaced really in terms of context.

A song that has such raw lyrics should be listed way at the top of your album. Cudi begins by telling us he's opening his "mind", and it's hard not to believe him with the harsh tone that overpowers such a raucous beat.

"The lost black sheep of G.O.O.D music" is what he calls himself, as Mescudi finally pumps up his metaphorical chest, revealing he was told to be "only good for a hook" - except with his old-school style he wants to "show you flows"

Something that you can derive from this track is passion, the one clear emotion missing from most of the project, and frankly Cudi's next two resulting studio albums too - Satellite Flight: The Journey to Mother Moon (2014) and the Cobain-inspired Speedin'.

What to expect from Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin'?

So with that in mind, considering "passion" is what we see first when looking at Mescudi's December-release, it's intriguing whether PPDS is a return to a much more inspired sound. Also important to find out if things have changed in a way of quality and personality - something Cudi's last three projects have lacked.

Not to say that Cudi's music should be exclusively introspective - it doesn't have to be to feel personal.

It's the fact that with his first two studio albums there was a clear progress on sonic level, with dense songs you could relate to.

This can't be said for anything else Mescudi's made, apart from his first mixtape A Kid Named Cudi, but then you'd have to go all the way back to 2008 for that. 

Cudi has released three lead singles so far in Surfin', Frequency and most recently 'Baptized in Fire' - all sounding different on the surface. The latter features Travis Scott, an artist who has actively learned from his friend in Mescudi.

With a whopping 19 songs PPDS is not for the casual listener, unless to use it solely for the purpose of hearing a single here and there.

Act 1: Tuned

As is the case with a lot of the music on this atmospheric album, Frequency - the opening track - takes some time to get on board with. 

However, once you're on the same channel as Cudi it becomes an anthem for the project’s mood and themes.

Fans of Mescudi’s older style will find the instrumentals on here a callback to the MOTM days as a booming backing-bass hits against a lighter trap-infused beat,  meeting autotuned notes from Cudi - similar to West on 808’s

Through staggered verses we learn that a ‘widened view’ means Cudi explores different frequencies with each of his albums, which is fair to say considering you couldn't put a genre on all of his work; one by one the ‘frequency’ alters. 

On top of this, the loneliness that Cudi suffers is only to him pushed back when surrounded by a “couple girls”  who in turn are only “easing”  his “frequency”.

'Swim in the Light' practically sounds like it was ripped off of the Drive (2011) soundtrack - a brilliant one at that. Except you'd have to take away Cudi's attempt at singing. 

Mescudi's use of autotune coupled with the overdrawn "go" doesn't bode well for an enjoyable listen. A shame, as the uneasy notes used perfectly in rhythm are wasted.

Even the abrupt ending brings a chilling sensation, connoting a sense of dread through troubles laid out in the lyrics - that hasn't gone away and there has been no closure

Luckily, Cudi builds an intelligent metaphor throughout the song. Portraying depression as an ocean, "dark" tries to pull him in whilst he swims in the "light".

In many ways this analogy depicts a true image of life being one huge ocean, resisting the urge to be pulled into the dark to drugs and suicide. Instead, being "smarter, stronger", living for the bright moments, is Cudi's advice and it's on point; everyone goes through the rough stages but what makes you human is coming out stronger. 

But for Mescudi it isn't always easy, as the last verse about himself shows, ending with a feeling of numbness. Lamar also used a similar metaphor in 'Swimming Pools' - the lead single from good kid m.A.A.d city ( 2013) - where subjects drown in alcoholism to escape their personal struggles; it's commonly mistaken for a celebration of drinking. 

His last lines are to the audience as his voice elevates - "when you're in love, swim in the light, swim in your love". Just one song back, Cudi showed he wasn't capable of being in love as he's always surrounded by girls to trap out the loneliness. 

Unfortunately, the vocal delivery isn't enough to save this quite frankly beautiful depiction of one's depression. 

Moving on to 'Releaser', another brilliant piece of production greets us, in the form of drums, synths and beats similar to that of its predecessor. Except Cudi's harmonising and strange whisper-esque singing voice is not best placed. 

What is right for the instrumental are some delightful backing vocals from Kacy Hill - her voice suits with the opposing angelic screams. 

Releaser builds on the ever-present theory of Cudi's that drugs are his only release from the haunting depression. What separates this track from the others is the slight implication he's singing from the viewpoint of drugs - a strange proposition but why else would Cudi sing in such an eerie and edgy tone?

"Your glory is blinding" - perhaps Mescudi's success is always blinding him from the fact he needs drugs to succeed in life, to get along. He "always knows" where to find them, in the end. 

Andre Benjamin, AKA Andre 3000, makes a welcomed appearance on 'By Design' - one thing that makes Cudi tracks a bit more appealing is a legendary feature. That notion comes to life on the third track, arguably the best song from PPDS and one for sure to be played by radio stations for months to come. 

Although Cudi touches on his own "frequency" again, this song is much more about living life than surviving it - as is the case in the previous three songs. 

Citing his belief in fate and the universe 'steering' him, Cudi finds himself preaching a different-but-similar message to 3K. Where Andre, through decisive bars, believes people around him are 'thinking too much' and in their boring statue-state don't have the vision of himself. Cudi believes in letting fate decide and not messing around; the energy of life and the "universe" must take its course.

What makes this song one of the better ones isn't just Cudi and Andre's charming back and forth. Plain Pat and Pharrell's combined production oozes of class; up-tempo beats blessed with a touch of Caribbean drums are somehow aligned perfectly to the lines', similar to the idea of "feng shui" referenced by Mescudi.

If only the harmony felt so natural throughout the album, as opposed to just in singles like By Design.

For example, the Mike WiLL Made-It 'All In' has undoubtedly brilliant production; unsurprising as producing is what Michael Williams II is most well-known for. 

Clearly, All In was created to please the fans of trap-beats; its message is one of self-acception and later adhering to his loyal followers.

It falls short in quality, a good single in itself but not what you'd associate Cudi with.

Anm
Andre Benjamin teamed up with Cudi for the first time on two tracks. Photo: Getty / Paras Griffin.
 

Act 2: Prophecy

Speaking of falling short in quality, 'ILLusions' really doesn't offer up much in terms of substance.

Instead, 4:16 is wasted on what sounds like a Satellite Flight b-side track. Spacious instrumentals match up with Cudi's slow and lifeless delivery; in the end he resorts to just saying "fly" leaving the purpose of this track up for questioning.

Thankfully 'Rose Golden' picks the album back up; accompanied by WIllow Smith (Yes, really) the third track hits all the normal Cudi themes - living solo whilst not listening to the views of peers.

Although this song definitely is an upgrade when compared with the lows PPDS manages to hit in its latter half, Mescudi seems to spoil a practically catchy chorus.

He should have left the singing up to Smith alone; their voices really do not match which makes Rose Golden sound off-key - this becomes an issue when the majority of Cudi's vocals are off-key as it is. 

Travis Scott teams up with Mescudi once again on Baptized in Fire - each trading verses over a spooky-but-heavy bass-beat. 

This is one of the few moments where Cudi actually pitches well, sounding natural alongside the backing track, as he makes good use of autotune along with Scott.

Opening up the audience are told to "turn your radio off" - ironic given that this was made into a single and will probably receive radio play. But this is not a faked message from Cudi; the Cleveland artist hasn't adhered to the radio stations with his music in years.

It's hard not to enjoy an instrumental like this, however, what separates this from others in quality is that Cudi sounds believable throughout - his lyrics bounce off each drop as he preaches "can't stop me, can't carry me baby".

These critiques can be labelled on 'Flight at First Sight/ Advanced' - still not sure what the point of this song is apart from acting as a set-up to its successor.

The first half is another slow and toothless piece of production; Cudi's plain lyrics further bury it into the void that his production team creates sonically. 

Even a supposed-feature from Pharrell wasn't enough to resurrect it in a second half pace switch-up with a more rapid-fire Mescudi. Instead, it serves to split the album from its frankly reasonable tracks and poor ones.

Kicking off with 'Does It', sweet violin melodies make one reminisce of the times when 'Hyyerr' and 'Cudi Zone' first showed the world the mind of the Kid named Cudi.

Except, now that we've heard it before from Mescudi, it comes off as lazy and un-inspired. Apparently years of making brilliant and original hooks can result in a lack of such - the best that could be created was "I does it, yeah"?

Even the ending sounds as misplaced and forced as this track (and this sentence).

Travis Scott also featured on the album. Photo: Getty / CBS Photo Archive.
Travis Scott also featured on the album. Photo: Getty / CBS Photo Archive.

Act 3: Niveaux de l'Amour

In truth, Cudi could've just cut this act from the album and could've saved us all a lot of time - especially the ones reviewing. 

'Dance 4 Enternity' feels like an eternity of bad lyric-choice; it never really moves on from the same lines in the first verse and Cudi is able to ruin a perfectly soothing instrumental. Although, it lacks in punch and starts off sounding similar to beats made on Garage Band.

Then moving on to 'Distant Fantasies' which is basically a Speedin' leftover, except it lacks a grunge guitar-riff. At this point it's confusing what direction this album is taking - previously happy to spend forever with another, Cudi is now found adamant that his past love "still thinks" about him.

Further on he warns "damn girl, when will you learn, there's no escaping me" - slightly off-putting, especially when coupled with a Halloween-ish backing track. 

By the end of 'Wounds' you do feel as though there's no escaping Cudi's strange choice in singing elongated lines.

Perhaps there's something to take from its predecessor in the fact that Mescudi now actively wants to fix his "wounds", previously showing signs of a man unable to move on.

Unfortunately, not only is there a bad vocal delivery to deal with, the production is harsh - sometimes too many variations of sound can come together to appear amateurish.

'Mature Nature' isn't plagued by this; instead its relaxing melody becomes another victim of over-indulgence from Cudi. If the majority of your lines are "heaven, again"  then either a re-write or a total wipe needs to happen.

Going back to Does It, the synths infused with violins passes as a beautiful part of production - this is classic Cudi. 

It's easy to see, however, that the duo of Plain Pat and Mescudi's attempts to re-create that MOTM sound come undone with such sparse lyrics. 

Not only does Cudi rhyme "mission" with "kitchen", he also makes use of a corny metaphor on 'Kitchen'. Seemingly, Act 3 makes full use of any instrumentals left over from the good days; once again the uplifting violin is able to express sadness within the beautiful highs and lows of its melody. 

Act 4: It's Bright and Heaven Is Warm

You get the impression that lead-single Surfin' could've been better placed when alongside tracks such as 'Cosmic Warrior'. 

Cudi doesn't help himself when he tells us he "took a swan dive" - this really is the case for the second half of PPDS.

There really isn't much to gain from listening to 'The Guide' either; possibly another Speedin' leftover. Andre 3000's talents are wasted - strange considering he's widely known as one of the greatest lyricists of his generation.

Check Frank Ocean's 'Solo (Reprise)' - from this year's Blonde - to know how and when to use the sheer genius of Benjamin. 

The same things that haunted Cudi's previous album live in this eerie track; loud groans and flat vocals do little to mask the painful swerves in an instrumental that consists of foggy guitar riffs and grainy synths.

Cudi's chorus on the penultimate 'The Commander' sticks out like a sore thumb to the hardcore fans; the same hook was used on 'Heart of a Lion'. 

Although this track is supposed to be one of redemption, finally finding control of his command. Unless it was done on purpose to act as a full-circle throwback, using the same line of "no, no, no, no, yeah!" shows a total lack of progress and self-awareness - two things this song is meant to express.

Surfin' will undoubtedly be that one song that you have to skip 10 times to listen to; a fantastic mix of bass, horns and string sections allow Cudi to sweep in effortlessly. His flow is contagious and represents a man in full control as his self-confidence is believable instead of forced. 

Even the drawn out harmonies towards the end are perfectly placed - a dear shame when compared with the majority of what it proceeded. 

If only Pharrell had produced the whole album, right?

Pharrell Williams had a hand in the production. Photo: Getty / Noam Galal
Pharrell Williams had a hand in the production. Photo: Getty / Noam Galal

A mix of improvement and disappointment 

It's not difficult to say that Passion, Pain and Demon Slayin' is an improvement on its predecessor - Speedin' Bullet 2 Heaven - because in nearly every way possible, it is.

But that doesn't hide the blatant flaws of Cudi's sixth studio album; one thing it shares with its predecessor is a runtime that's unwarranted.

Both strain on for around 90 minutes, something that can only work if the content has deeper value or concept - take Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) as a shining example. In just 78 minutes - which by no means is short - the Compton-rapper builds a world around a poem; touching on the subjects of depression, wealth, racial equality and much, much more. 

Mescudi barely touches the surface in his project; he really only dives into a couple conscious matters with his first few songs - reminding us that little has changed from 2013's Indicud where something similar took place.

Looking at Cudi's swan dive musically, in recent years it becomes clear why he chose to change direction away from hip/hop and rap. He just doesn't have the same drive to create originality or achieve greatness that inspired earlier albums.

When you're all out of ideas and head down the path of individuality, as Mescudi did after Man on the Moon II, your personality and talent are one in the same - being affected by depression and suicidal thoughts perhaps had a knock-on effect for the music.

Similarly, close friend Kanye West may be suffering from this too; not only has his fashion career taken off, but pressure from the world to create music is ever-present. The Life of Pablo (2016) and Yeezus (2013) are complete turnarounds from The College Dropout (2004) and Late Registration (2005); not only do they feel different, incohesive, but do a lot to represent the personal struggles that changed Ye's quality of output without people even realising. 

Most artists that go through the trials and tribulations of life, such as West and Mescudi, would perhaps put working in the studio last on their list of things to do to separate themselves from their minds. 

Often is the case with these two that their music is representative of said-life.

Unfortunately this oozes onto the majority of PPDS; Act 1 provides some fine feel-good tracks in the form of By Design and All In, alongside some not so feel-good moments in Swim in the Light and Releaser.

Baptized in Fire and Rose Golden show signs of life in terms of Cudi's resurrection from grunge in Act 2, but this is not enough to overshadow the lows that are reached with ILLusions and Does It.

Words aren't enough to display the sheer disappointment met when faced with far too many nothing-tracks in Act 3 and even into Act 4 - bar Surfin'.

The question will always remain: "can Cudi make an accomplished return?". However, what should instead be put to the mic is whether he will ever again create music that not only sounds true but inspired.

With his first two releases there was a vivid picture painted, through an original use of instrumentals. Now, with the album in question, what strikingly connotes an uninspired artist is the variety of soundscapes - there isn't much, most songs feel the same and have a lack of direction.

Add on top of that the fact that many songs carry on for far too long; four-minute tracks could often be shortened by up to half the length. Then there's some that simply don't belong, for example The Guide or Distant Fantasies.

The only redeeming qualities this album has are the gorgeous production and, as always, the personal nature that surrounds a Mescudi record.

Ultimately though, nothing Cudi makes is ever going to be loathed by his loyal fanbase, which is admirable but brushes over the steady regression in quality. Especially not this latest release, as the anticipation of a potential 'MOTM III' grows, it'll most likely add smoke to a fire filled by hopeful fans.

Maybe in Mescudi's upcoming tour he'll derive some inspiration that will lead him back on track, instead of the current void his albums spiral into with each disappointing reveal.

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