Kid Cudi doesn't want you to take him seriously. On his debut album, Man on the Moon: The End of Day, he says, "I got 99 problems, and they all bitches/Wish I was Jigga, man, carefree living/But I'm not Sean or Martin Louie/I'm the Cleveland nigga rolling with them Brooklyn boys." The rest of the album, like the rapper's year-old mixtape, A Kid Named Cudi, is full of those kinds of flippant one-liners ("It's all said and done, and my cock's been sucked"), but like his Midwestern brethren the Cool Kids, who share a juvenile moniker as well as a taste for retro hip-hop, Cudi genuinely seems to just be having fun. Which made his tribute to DJ AM at last night's MTV Video Music Awards a lot more tolerable, if less entertaining, than Kanye West's already-notorious tantrum during Taylor Swift's acceptance speech for Best Female Video.
It wasn't very ambitious, but Kid Named Cudi announced one of the most promising, likeable new sounds in hip-hop. He can switch from rap to soul as easily as he can crack a joke: In his memorable tribute to marijuana, "Maui Wowie," he says he's "on a mission to get lifted like John Legend and shit." But from its bombastic title to Common's annoying narration, Man on the Moon vies for both a bigger pop platform and indie credibility. Unfortunately, the much-ballyhooed collaboration with MGMT and Ratatat, "Pursuit of Happiness," is exactly the kind of overproduced rock-rap ballad that will no doubt invite the disdain of the Pitchfork tastemakers that Cudi has been courting. The drippy lyrics describe a stoner's inner torment, but it's hard to believe Cudi is very tormented, especially when he's toking up.
Tellingly, the best song on the album is actually an extended joke: the Kanye-produced "Make Her Say," in which both rappers and Common riff on the coded sexual messages of Lady Gaga's "Poker Face." "I make her say 'oh' when I poke her face," might be the most audaciously crude chorus of the year, but the sparse production and Cudi's dexterous rhyming are too good to ignore. As long as you don't take them too seriously.