Structured as a five-act show with interludes, narrated by Common, and featuring guest spots from indie and hip-hop royalty, Kid Cudi's debut, Man on the Moon: The End of Day, was an audacious and idea-driven introduction to the stoner savant's brand of leftfield hip-hop. All the more ironic, then, that one of its most memorable tracks was the Gaga-sampling "Make Her Say," a crass but clever posse cut which wasn't the least bit trippy or metaphysical—just three guys swapping sex jokes over a sample from the acoustic version of "Poker Face." One-off or not, you might think that the song's success would have taught Cudi something about how to integrate his oddball aesthetic into the mainstream: Dial down the theatrical moping, show more generosity of hooks and humor, and maybe settle for expanding hip-hop's borders rather than aiming to reinvent the genre in one go.
Of course, Cudi has spent enough time with his superstar mentor, Kanye West, that he could plot a trajectory to superstardom without my advice. And so I have to look at Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager as a testament to Cudi's slightly misguided sense of integrity, as he once again passes on the commercial breakthrough that is rightfully his, preferring to be a distant universe of one than circle in anyone else's orbit. The sequel actually finds Cudi burrowing deeper into the black hole of spacey psychedelia, fusing the clinical, synthetic hip-hop of 808s & Heartbreak with rock sounds derived from Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and Zappa. The most obvious rock homage, "Erase Me," is a flat-out embarrassment (it aims for a '70s-rock pastiche but sounds more like '90s mall-punk a la Lit or New Found Glory), but mostly the hybrid production style proves an atmospheric and eerie delight.
"Maniac," for example, twists St. Vincent's "The Strangers" around Cudi's own wicked guitar licks for an unsettling highlight, and his six-string skills add just the right touch of discord to the string-driven "GHOST!," a spooky slow jam engineered by No I.D. (which, to the producer's credit, sounds totally distinct from his recent work with Drake and West). It's all genuinely exciting stuff; in fact, the production, most of which is done by Cudi's manager, Emile, almost unbalances the album, as Cudi's vocals rarely engage as well as the somnambulant funk over which he's rapping. What his flows lack in athleticism, his singing certainly doesn't make up for in tunefulness, and the half-rapped, half-sung style that he adopts for the majority of the album doesn't impress on either level. Leave it to Cudi to release a freakishly ambitious rap album but forget to include much in the way of good rapping.
But Cudi already knows that his biggest problem is his tendency to live in his own head. The album's closing track, "Trapped in My Mind," meets that criticism with equal parts resignation and affirmation: "When you think of the world/I know it's crazy/Hey, I'm not that bad at all." With that, another Kid Cudi album concludes its narrative with our protagonist left lonely, smart, and stoned—exactly the way he introduced himself on his breakthrough "Day 'n' Nite." Of those three adjectives, only the first seems likely to change. Cudi's space-case persona has already earned him a cult following of like-minded introverts who will gladly share in his ego-tripping adventures. But where rock's pantheon is already home to a number of slacker auteurs who have influenced more by way of attitude than great technical or commercial proficiency, hip-hop has tended to be less kind to its underdogs. Pursuing genius at the expense of consistency might work out just fine for Cudi: I'm not convinced that he's a good rapper, but I'm pretty sure he's an important one.