Kid Cudi's Biggest Win in Years Came From 'Passion, Pain, & Demon Slayin''

It’s an exciting return to form & stands as the one clear victory in Cudi’s catalog in recent years.

Jordan Sowunmi

“In this world, being a leader is trouble for the system we are all accustomed to. Being a leader in this and age is being a threat. Not many people stood up against a system we all call life. But toward the end of our first 10 years into the millennium, we heard a voice. A voice who was speaking to us from the underground for some time. A voice who spoke of vulnerabilities and other human emotions, and issues never before heard so vividly and honest. This is the story of a young man who not only believed in himself, but his dreams too." Common — "In My Dreams," Man on the Moon: The End of Days (2009)

Kid Cudi’s impact on today’s rap landscape is manifold: an uncommonly emotional rapper whose vulnerability, candor, and collaboration with electronic and indie artists, he carved a new path for rappers eager to subvert rap’s gangsta archetypes near the turn of the 2010s. The number of rappers who cite him as a direct influence is vast and diverse—Travis Scott, Childish Gambino, Tyler, the Creator, Isaiah Rashad, Jhene Aiko, and Tinashe, to name a few. The bulk of Cudi’s impact stems from his first three releases: A Kid Named Cudi (2008), Man on the Moon I: The End of DayMan on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager(2010). The legacy of those three records, plus his work on Kanye West’s 2008 classic, 808s & Heartbreaks is likely what inspired West to call Cudi, “the most influential artist of the last 10 years,” at a concert in 2016. 

Cudi’s next three major records—an eponymous rock album, WZRD, the largely self-produced Indicud, and the grunge-rap exploration Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven—failed to capture the magic of his first three releases. Despite high-profile support from artists like Andre 3000 and Erykah Badu, in the weeks following Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven, some fans lamented that the Kid Cudi they grew to love had abandoned them in favor of experimentation that was less than compelling. It was a criticism to which Cudi was attuned. “I’ve come to find that people think I’m completely terrible,” Cudi told Billboard in the lead up to the release of his fourth solo album, Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’. “They’re so naïve."

When “Frequency,” the lead single off Passion Pain and Demon Slayin’, dropped in September 2016, many longtime Cudi fans were thrilled to hear what they recognized as the Scott Mescudi of old—the patented crooning and humming, the creeping mid-tempo production, the half-sung melodic rapping. As an introductory single, Scott Mescudi’s message to his fans came through loud and clear: Cudderisback.

Collaborating with producers from his glory years like Plain Pat, Mike Dean, Dot da Genius, Anthony Killhoffer, Cudi added heavyweight newcomers like Mike Will Made it and Pharrell Williams to his squad. He also made a point of evolving his sound by connecting with new accomplices decidedly representative of hip-hop and R&B of this decade. In addition to features from legends like Andre 3000 (credited as Andre Benjamin) and the aforementioned Pharrell, Cudi teamed up with two psychedelia-influenced superfans of his work—Willow Smith and Travis Scott.

His collaboration with Willow, “Rose Golden,” is one of the album’s brightest moments. The song is familiar terrain for Cudi; he emphasizes how the thoughts and feelings that made him feel different were actually the ones that propelled him to success (“Oh, since I was young, been groovin’ to my own drum / I ain’t really have teachers show me my potential / Felt like a failure / Momma said ‘You know better’ / Future in my hands / God, she had a plan / Stronger than I know, soon I’d understand / The power that I possess / The story of the chosen”), connecting his struggles and triumphs to the traits that made him unique. The song also implores listeners to give people in their lives the room to be who they are, no matter how far from the norm, “Spread love to all my brothers and sisters / Stop judging a nigga because they’re so different / We’re supposed to groove to our own tune.” This is ground Cudi has covered before, but now that he has cemented his legacy as one of rap’s psychic forefathers, the exhortations come with more gravitas.

Another standout track is one of the record’s two collaborations with Andre 3000, “By Design,” which sees Cudi lauds the strength of intuition and adapting to the universe’s rhythms: “Moments don’t pass me up, no, no / ‘Cause I seize them in stride / Tell ‘em winning never gave me in / when I eternally have faith / In the choices you made, it’s all by design / Go with it, mmm / Come on, don’t fuck up the feng shui,” a message that recalls other inspirational tracks in Cudi’s oeuvre like “Heart of a Lion,” tunes where Cudi champions his ability to cope with and overcome his battles with depression, self-doubt, and insecurity to achieve success as a model for how listeners can do the same.

Songs like “Frequency,” “By Design,” and “Rose Golden” are compelling examples of the way Cudi tapped into the creative well that brought him to prominence. Passion, Pain, & Demon Slayin’ is a cohesive body of work in line with his best albums—one that transports you deep into the recesses of Scott Mescudi’s mind, complete with doubt, uncertainty, and formalist rap foes lurking at every corner—but the album is far from perfect. Like some of Cudi’s other releases, it’s bogged down by excess the album would be richer without (“Mature Nature,” “Kitchen,” “Distant Fantasies”).

Nevertheless, it’s an exciting return to form, and stands apart as the one clear victory in Cudi’s catalogue in the last five years.

The album’s final track, “Surfin’” is upbeat and hopeful number, lionizing Cudi’s career in the rap game. Nearly a decade into a career that has produced six studio albums, a seminal mixtape, supporting roles in notable television shows and films, and a sphere of influence with tentacles touching nearly every end of contemporary hip-hop, when Cudi says, “No, I ain’t ridin’ no waves / Too busy makin’ my own waves, baby,” it feels like a celebration of an avowed iconoclast returning to his original mission statement.

In the previously cited interview with Billboard, Cudi discussed his plans for 2016, taking aim at a collection of unnamed rappers. “Everybody that’s out there thinks that they’re dope, your crew’s got you gassed. Instagram and Twitter got you gassed. Your likes and favorites got you gassed. I’m about to show niggas what’s nice. And then I’m retiring.”

While all diehard Cudi fans hope that isn’t the case, if this, in fact, is it for Mr. Solo Dolo, at least he left us with the type of work for which we grew to love him. Today marks the one-year anniversary of Passion, Pain, and Demon Slayin’, and we’re celebrating this messy, imperfect, monument of introspection and perseverance. It’s a strong musical companion for a rapper whose career has embodied all of those same qualities.

You can stream Kid Cudi's entire discography here.