Depending on who you ask, Kid Cudi is either a boundary-breaking figure in hip-hop and fashion or an overrated sidekick who made the most of unusually good connections. As is often the case with internet rap debates, both sides of the argument are mostly overreacting to each other; the truth is somewhere in the middle. To hear younger rappers and their fans tell it, Kid Cudi is undisputedly an influential figure in the pivot toward melody-conscious, emotionally earnest trap music that came together at the top of this decade. He hasn’t always made good on this sphere of influence, though. As good as the first two Man on the Moon albums a decade ago might’ve been, his 2012 project, WZRD, was a borderline abysmal amalgam of bad rock tropes and artless oversharing (though, in a certain light, you can see it as a kind of ur-text mapping out the straight-faced pivot from hip-hop to pop-punk that artists like Cudi’s fellow Ohio rapper-ternt-sanga Machine Gun Kelly get credit for nowadays), and 2015’s raw, noisy Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven could be the single most egregious act of grunge fan service since the plague of shameless alt-rock radio groaners loosed on the Earth after Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley passed.
It’s a perfect quandary: to silence naysayers who’ve questioned his chops since his 2008 debut mixtape A Kid Named Cudi, the Cleveland star has pushed himself to prove his range as a producer, singer, and rapper, but the further he strays from the Man on the Moon script of gauzy beats by Plain Pat, Emile Haynie, and Dot Da Genius, and excoriating, honest singing, the dicier things get. Getting the group back together to close the Man on the Moon trilogy with the new Man on the Moon III: The Chosen presented the opportunity to build on the promise of 2016’s underrated Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ and the respect of famous admirers like Travis Scott and Juice WRLD.
Like Man on the Moon: The End of Day and Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager, The Chosen is broken up into themed suites that track our protagonist’s descent into madness and the harrowing road to recovery. Early on, songs like “Another Day” and “Damaged” channel the spirit of lurid Mr. Rager party anthems like “The Mood” as Cudi explains how excessive self-medicating can exacerbate mental health struggles under the pretense of smoothing them out. The concept doesn’t necessarily hold up all the way through. Pivotal I’m-a-work-in-progress tunes — like “All Along,” “Cudi Zone,” “GHOST!,” and “Pursuit of Happiness” — that carried The End of Day and Mr. Rager out of the dark and into the light are edged out here in favor of lyrical workouts where Cudi seems more taken with proving his mettle as a rhymer than clarifying the message in the rhymes. Songs like “Dive,” “The Pale Moonlight,” and “Heaven or Earth” will crush in festival sets (eventually …) thanks to spirited performances and production, but at the end of the verse, it’s sometimes a struggle to parse what’s being said and how it pertains to the themes teased out in the choruses. “Moonlight,” ostensibly a song about coming to terms with the fact that self-improvement is a lifelong process, serves more lines flexing on weed and women than exploring its central theme.
The songs that do stick to the script sometimes get just as garbled in their messaging. The refrain from “The Void” goes, “I will fall in the void, fall in the void just to avoid/ Anything that can bring me down or fuck with my flow,” a turn of phrase that’s pleasing to the ear but confusing on close inspection. (If you’re in a void, you’ve been brought down, and your flow’s been fucked with, no?) The childhood flashback “Elsie’s Baby Boy” offsets pained details about Cudi’s formative years with a simplistic, repetitive hook about how winters were boring that distracts from the sentiment the song is trying to sell. Working with Travis Scott inspired Cudi to tighten up foundations as a lyricist; as with Travis, style sometimes leapfrogs substance.
Grading a Kid Cudi album on the clarity of the bars is like judging a Logic album by how well it plays in the strip club, though. It’s not what you press play for. The operative question with any new Man on the Moon property is how capably it ushers you through the peaks and valleys of your emotions: Does The Chosen restore the feeling, or is it another 2020 bout of reviving familiar branding to boost product? At its best, it’s a worthy successor. “Another Day” is the coldest Cudi song in a while, full of enticing melodies and dour sentimentality. “Lovin’ Me” matches Mr. Rager’s searching darkness and unpredictable taste in outside collaborators, as Cudi trades pleading, prayerful verses with Phoebe Bridgers, recalling the well-placed St. Vincent sample on Rager’s “MANIAC.” “Solo Dolo, Pt. III” bests Indicud’s too-busy “Solo Dolo, Part II.” “4 Da Kidz” is the same kind of inspirational, autobiographical yarn End of Day’s reputation is built on.
The glut of party anthems on the front end of the album express an understanding of both the mechanics of a good trap hit and Cudi’s place in the continuum. “She Knows This” makes great use of guitar loops and beat changes; “Show Out” with Skepta and Pop Smoke branches out carefully, playing up the kinship between BK and U.K. drill. “Rockstar Knightz” with Trippie Redd is a solid intergenerational team-up that makes you wonder what this album might’ve looked like if Cudi opened the floor up to more of his famous aesthetic successors. It feels like a bit of a missed opportunity for an artist who works well with others to spend the overwhelming majority of The Chosen going it alone, but Cudi holds court, and even when he loses the plot, he’s got plush, enveloping beats from Dot, Pat, Finneas, Wondagurl, Take a Daytrip, Mike Dean, and Anthony Kilhoffer guiding him. Man on the Moon III is enjoyable if far from perfect — the same is true of the first two installments — and we’re no closer to understanding the source of the Cleveland hummer’s power and the reason his music pushes the buttons it does. But this’ll pair nicely with the cold nights coming in the long winter, when we’ll need every yearning sad song we can get, so there’s that.