I’ve seen Lupe Fiasco live about six or seven times now. I’ve seen him more than any other hip hop artist, and yet, I probably bitch about him more than any other rapper. That probably makes me a hypocrite. In 2006, before Food and Liquor came out, I was listening to “Kick, Push” all summer long – and later, “I Gotcha.” This shit was different. You knew he was special from listening to his Touch the Sky verse. He played a great set at the Intonation Festival. I was hyped. I cut out of work and took a train up to Target to pick it up on release day, only to find it was sold out. With my anticipation as high as it was, I’m sure I was bound to be disappointed.
But I was disappointed, and I’ve never bounced back from that with Lupe. I’ve listened to the record a lot, as well as his somewhat superior (and somewhat inferior) follow-up, The Cool. There’s a lot of reasons for that. Part of it is his fanbase, too many of whom are hip hop neophytes who seem shocked that a rapper can tell an interesting and socially conscious story. Part of it is the underwhelming production on his first two records. More of it is his attitude, as he’s got the same big ego as any other rapper, but he carries it with a sense of smugness, that he’s the chosen one to bring hip hop to the promised land. The preachy monologues at the beginning of both of his records, his refusal to have more than one big name guest on any of his records, that he repeats a verse on “The Instrumental” and then pulls the same trick on “He Say She Say” one track later – he just seems so humorless and serious. Back when all I knew about the guy was two singles, a feature and a festival performance, he had all the charisma in the world. Three years later, he seems obsessed with high-concept moral high ground, and self-righteous people who think that mainstream hip hop is too obsessed with guns and hos eat his shit up. His two records, thus far, are sprawling, ambitious disappointments. But Lupe is such a good MC that you can’t just brush him off. So I keep going to see him live, but I keep getting frustrated at how much I dislike the man, or at least what he’s indulged in, musically speaking. Or maybe it’s just that the first time I saw him, he was so charismatic and funny, and that never translated to a bigger stage or a bigger crowd. It got to a point this summer where during a concert at the Chicago Theatre, during his Touch the Sky verse, he just pointed the mic at the crowd and let them sing the entire thing, while he soaked in the adulation. Bitch move at an otherwise good show. He’s still got the talent, he’s become a better performer, even, but in the process, he’s lost what attracted me to him in the first place.
So, uh, the Kid Cudi record.
The only reason I’m going into all this detail is because Kid Cudi followed the exact same path that Lupe did. A primo Kanye guest spot. An underground niche single that hit it big on the radio. His album is a somewhat poorly-defined concept album divided into five “acts” which sounds conceptually like an awful short story I wrote for a creative writing class in high school. Only one track with big-name features – the Lady Gaga-sampling “Make Her Say,” with Kanye and Common. Common narrates the album. Big ego live, kind of an ass in interviews. The same burgeoning fanbase. Hip hop for people who scowl about hip hop. As far as I could tell, the dude was a Lupe Fiasco repeat in wait. I expected this record to be an ambitious, sprawling disappointment, smug and humorless and just a little condescending, trying to make points instead of making jams. So here’s the one-line quote that Cudi can put on a sticker on the album cover.
Better than I expected.
The concept of this concept album both helps and hurts this album. On the one hand, it’s incoherent, and the narration by Common is unnecessary, though it does establish him as the Will Arnett of hip hop. Great, Cudi. You have dreams, and sometimes you think they’re real. The “plot?” of the album does lend the album a sense of common purpose, an arc, and keeps the album focused. It keeps Cudi from indulging too much in really, really bad ideas. But portions of the album drag. You have to be in an exceptionally patient mood to make it through Act II, for instance, which consists of “Solo Dolo,” “Heart of a Lion,” and “My World.” Certainly they fit together well, and I guess it’s a logical part of the story, but logical only carries you so far. Even as it drags, however, there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on – I just can’t help but feel that in the hands of a better producer it would have made a more appealing package.
“Pursuit of Happiness” goes in some unexpected sonic directions thanks to production by Ratatat, and “Up Up & Away” builds to a great pace and is just jubilant enough to cast away most of the tension built up by the preceding 14 tracks. Their impact is heightened by the relatively belabored pace of the rest of the album. Yin, yang, can’t have redemption without struggle, etc.
This is an album, and not a collection of singles, though Cudi has, counterintuitively, a number of tracks that could be single material. The album occasionally brought to mind a moodier The College Dropout, if only because of how well the later tracks stand on their own, with more haunting hooks that you can’t get out of your head. Cudi’s slow, monotone, sometimes off-key delivery and the production become more important than anything in particular that he’s saying – which is a blessing in disguise, because of how little he has to say. As sharp as “Soundtrack 2 My Life” began (“I got 99 problems / And they all bitches”) there are none of the revelations that blessed The College Dropout, as Cudi seems more content to mope about his vaguely defined issues. In “Simple As…” he plays a more interesting character, perhaps a less despondent Fatlip or a quieter Kanye: “I can’t be a loser could’ve figured that / I can’t be a lame I’m cooler than that.” But he stops trying around “Sky Might Fall,” where he starts talking about how the grey clouds and rainstorms are metaphors for his life, man.
Man on the Moon is outer spacey and psychedelic, tortured and introspective, belabored and patient. It’s not great, but it’s good. Cudi clearly accomplished what he set out to accomplish, but that’s for better or for worse. He stays on topic, but it might have helped if he strayed a little. He follows his story arc, though that story arc was largely without excitement or surprises. It’s unambitiously ambitious, sometimes quietly obnoxious but never obnoxiously quiet. There are tracks that can stand on their own as singles, but you should probably hear the album in full – the only track that sounds out of place is Day and Night, and that’s only because of its ubiquity. The record is loaded with contradictions, and that doesn’t make it great, but it makes it interesting enough for a couple spins.
Posted by Joe Kaiser at Sep 16, 2009 12:17 PM