What is a genre? A collection of similar sounding music? A name for a specific artistic movement? The exact definition can be tricky, and often the term boxes artists and confuses listeners. The “Pop” genre on iTunes, for example, encompasses Frank Ocean, Fall Out Boy and John Lennon, all of whom have a markedly different sound.
Because of the strange confinements the concept of genres lead to, the phrase “genre blurring” has gained a largely positive connotation. It’s seen as a validation of an artist’s skill if they can be effective beyond the formula they’re usually known for. Radiohead did this to a hugely successful effect, shifting from guitar driven rock to experimental electronic to their dark and seductive release In Rainbows. Each change highlighted a diverse skillset and rebelled against the idea of what typical “rock” should be.
Sometimes the result is much less successful. Kid Cudi is a prime example of this. His debut release Man on the Moon: The End of Day blended R&B, hip hop and rock to a moderately interesting effect. It was far from perfect, but there was enough catchy production to counteract Cudi’s lack of lyrical prowess. He skyrocketed to popularly on the sheer listenability of his music and the hordes of faux-philosophical “nice guys” who hailed him as their leader, relating to his irksome “nice guy” complaints (“maybe if I was a jerk to girls, instead of being nice and speaking kind words”). His most popular tracks, like “Soundtrack 2 My Life” and “Day n’ Night,” are simply enjoyable songs, no more and no less. This would explain why Cudi found his greatest success in the high school party scene, becoming practically synonymous with it after the teen film “Project X” propelled “Pursuit of Happiness” to anthem status.
But the constant mix of self-aggrandizing, screams of “I'm different!” and adolescent confessionals could only go so far. After his second album Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager, which was mostly an extension on the first, Cudi began to move in different directions. He tried his hand at an alternative rock/psychedelic band called WZRD with producer Dot da Genius, but the debut was met with largely negative reviews. His next solo album Indicud saw Cudi return to the hip-hop world, and the new production was unique but forgettable. The album was panned because it proved that Cudi truly had nothing left to say after the Man on the Moon series — he actually got worse. Take his lyrics from “Just What I Am”: “Let me tell you ‘bout my month y’all, endless shopping, I had a ball, I had to ball for therapy, my shrink don’t think that helps at all, whatever, that man ain’t wearing these leather pants.” It’s the ultimate sad brag, alternating between “I’m so sensitive” and “I’m so cool and wealthy.”
Still, Cudi’s last album Satellite Flight: The Journey to Mother Moon showed more promise. It’s his shortest album to date and was billed as a bridge between Indicud and a possible Man on the Moon III. The album had some of the most interesting production since his debut, and it seemed that there was something different coming.
So what, you ask, happened after leaving us on that cautiously hopeful note? Cudi’s worst release to date: Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven. If we are to believe Cudi’s claim that this is “100% the purest form of my artistic self,” then Cudi’s true artistic self is a mediocre Nirvana revivalist band.
Cudi has always cited ’90s punk rock as having a strong influence on his music. But where Cudi once claimed some originality by stepping around typical genre boxes and adding his own personality, Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven removes everything that once made Cudi unique and popular – ease of listening, productive strength, etc. – and replaces it with his best attempt at replicating the ’90s grunge movement.
And it’s a poor attempt at that. Cudi plays bass and guitar throughout the album, and while the effort is commendable, the instrumentation is clearly weak. This is only exacerbated by Cudi’s insistence on refraining from the usual electronic production, trying to remain as true to Nirvana as possible. References to the band, and Cobain specifically, are plentiful. Cudi moans and yells, the guitar is distorted and the lyricism is dark. These are all superficial aspects. The artistry which set Nirvana apart — beautifully cryptic poetry, perfected instrument arrangements and a strong pop sensibility — is blatantly disrespected. Where Cobain used phrases like “heart-shaped box” or “meat-eating orchid,” Cudi blurts out “her vagina is moist and warm.” Cobain is rolling in his grave.
Clocking in at over an hour-and-a-half, Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven is a chore to get through. There are few songs which warrant more than a single listen, and the ones that do (the title track) are still far below Cudi’s previous successes. The claim of a “double album” doesn’t produce any kind of measurable effect, and it seems like a half-hearted justification for sprawling over 26 tracks without any substantive reason to do so.
But most confusing are the Beavis and Butthead skits. Narration has been a recurrent element in Cudi’s music, and it’s nearly always ineffectual. He uses it to repeat points that need no repetition and to offer as much self-praise as possible. The Beavis and Butthead skits are especially strange because their irreverent and self-aware comedy directly conflicts with the self-riotousness Cudi stands for. At times it seems as if they’re mocking him without his realization. At the end of “Man in the Night” Butthead states “Hello ladies, we bring you the greatest album that has ever been made in the history of man.” For a second Beavis can be heard laughing in the background.
It’s hard to believe the irony was purposeful, especially when referring to Cudi’s Twitter account — “The Chosen One.” The last few months have filled his feed with discussion on the album, and none of it has been humble or modest. Between tweets like “the complexity of scott mescudi” and “Im (sic) strange” Cudi quotes statements by his fans hailing the work as “genius” or “completely revolutionary.” Sure, plenty of artists call themselves the best. Some even compare themselves to god (Kanye). But many of those artists have the skill to at least make an argument, something that has been lacking from Cudi’s work.
We can only hope that Cudi once again changes direction. Perhaps he still has some talent left.