Cleveland-born, Brooklyn-based rapper Kid Cudi’s turn toward arty rock sounds with WZRD, his mostly two-man collaboration with long-time friend and producer Dot da Genius, isn’t nearly as surprising as some in the hip-hop world are claiming: Following his impressive 2009 debut with the single “Day ’n’ Nite” and the ambitious concept album Man on the Moon: The End of Day, the man born Scott Mescudi promised that the highly-anticipated sequel, 2010’s Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager, would be “a lot more rock,” though it didn’t quite turn out that way. But for all his talk of embracing classic rock and setting this outing apart from his rap career—the name reportedly was inspired by the Black Sabbath track “The Wizard,” and in interviews he’s been name-dropping heroes such as the Electric Light Orchestra, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd—the music and the themes aren’t much of a departure from the brief but memorable canon he’s created.
This is to say, WZRD’s self-titled debut is every bit as inventive and consistently rewarding musically and lyrically as his last two albums, regardless of the genre you want to file it under. And as rock mergers from the hip-hop world go, its success is much closer in spirit and execution to his mentor Kanye West’s downbeat epic 808s & Heartbreak and Common’s vastly underrated Electric Circus than it is to a massive marketing disaster and colossal artistic flop such as Lil Wayne’s Rebirth. Such is Cudi’s level of cocky self-confidence that he even tackles a cover of “In the Pines,” the folk traditional first widely known via Ledbelly though now forever associated with Kurt Cobain, and such is his level of achievement that it stands as a damn good version (if ultimately a step down from Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York).
“In the Pines” isn’t the only quieter moment here—it’s followed by a moody, moving ditty called “Efflictim” that, probably not coincidentally, finds Cudi asking, “What would you do if you find out from your friends that I was dead?”—and “The Dream Time Machine” is an ambient drone with a guest appearance from Empire of the Sun. But most of the musical backings hail from the harder-hitting stoner-rock end of the spectrum, with grungy guitars and deliciously fat analog synths creating deliriously rich, swirling and often psychedelic settings for both Cudi’s off-the-cuff ramblings and his deeper existential musings. And long may he follow his muse: As he rhymes somewhere between rapping and monotone singing in “Love Hard”: “If you love soft, then you’ve already lost/But oh, if you love hard/You should let down your guard and follow your heart.”
Rating on the four-star scale: 3.5 stars.