Album review: Kid Cudi, “Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager”

November 17, 2010

With his invigorating hit single “Day ’n’ Nite” and the ambitious debut concept album “Man on the Moon: The End of Day,” Cleveland-born, Brooklyn-based rapper Kid Cudi, known to his mom as Scott Ramon Seguro Mescudi, instantly marked himself as one of the most important and creative voices in hip-hop today. But his is a restless talent, as well as an ample one, and in the months preceding his sophomore release, he was talking a lot about how the sequel would be “a lot more rock,” as well as more dense and downbeat in tone.

“‘Man On The Moon II’ is dark by nature, and instead of bringing you into my dreams like my first album, I’m bringing you into my reality, good and bad,” Cudi has said. “It will explain more of who I am, as well as pushing the envelope musically.”

There isn’t a whole lot of evidence of the aforementioned rock in the end result; the sounds are much closer to the Spartan but moving dark-night-of-the-soul electronic nightmares of the 2008 stunner “808s & Heartbreak” by Cudi’s mentor Kanye West. The 17 tracks are divided into five “acts” (“The World I Am Ruling”; “A Stronger Trip”; “Party On”; “The Transformation,” and “You Live & You Learn”), and like precious few hip-hop albums since the fertile “alternative rap” heyday of De La Soul and “Paul’s Boutique,” they take you on a gripping journey.

Cudi, who runs off at the mount nearly as much as his pal ’Ye, has also said the disc was inspired by his cocaine addiction, and that makes sense: We get the sense of anxious anticipation, a sudden intoxicating rush, and a very harsh crash, as well as an increasingly desperate panic about being trapped within that cycle and unable to escape. The diversity and invention of the sounds are breathtaking—there’s hardly a genre that the artist leaves untouched—but so is the consistency of the moods they evoke; as Jon Caramancia observed in The New York Times, “It’s closer to Radiohead than to most hip-hop."

Yet just as Cudi never is overshadowed by the stellar roster of guests—including West, Mary J. Blige, and St. Vincent (via the well-chosen sample in “Maniac”)—the lyrics never take a back seat to the musical settings, and the story of a man desperate for redemption who fears that he may have lost his soul for good is riveting. And the accomplishment is all the more impressive when you take into account that the rapper also was busy playing a key role in the new HBO series “How to Make It in America” while crafting this thoroughly realized musical vision.

Kid Cudi, “Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager” (Dream On/GOOD Music/Universal Motown)

3 1/2 stars (out of 4)