Returning to a series of albums that saw its last installment ten years ago, psychedelic hip-hop pioneer Kid Cudi is back more popular than ever in a musical landscape he had a huge role in shaping. Continuing the story of the Man on The Moon series, Cudi once again steps into battle with his nefarious alter ego Mr. Rager who represents his feelings of sadness and anger. The story feels all the more appropriate now. His outstanding collaborative project Kids See Ghosts with mentor Kanye West saw him much more open with his past struggles and subsequent defeat of many of his mental demons, and these conversations continue here. While many of Cudi’s solo projects have been highly uneven at best and hopelessly misguided at worst, hearing him finally return to his classic psych-rap style and put his own spin on more modern trends in a world where Travis Scott is one of the world’s biggest superstars yields some great results. Of course, there are still quite a few downright bizarre Cudi-isms that unfortunately derail tracks with otherwise great ideas – but it’s hard not to root for the guy.
Man on the Moon III is divided into four acts, though it’s not entirely clear what the specific narrative purpose or sound of each is meant to be – the whole project essentially loosely revolves around themes of Cudi fighting off the negative energy surrounding him. Nonetheless, Act I kicks off with the track “Tequila Shots” after a brief instrumental intro. Reintroducing listeners to the storyline with one of the catchier tracks here destined to be a single, Cudi brings back his trademark hums over an ethereal beat of cascading synths and switches back and forth between his spaced-out deep-voiced moans and a breathier, more introspective cadence. “Can’t stop this war in me,” he sings on the chorus as he once again prepares for battle. “Another Day” is his most clearly Travis Scott-inspired song here, and Cudi himself has stated how much he was influenced by Scott across this project. Remaining in a reverb-drenched lower register, some of Cudi’s lyrics about snapping out of a harmful party lifestyle hit hard but he loses his musical personality in the process. Tracks in Act I seem to follow a general theme of Cudi looking back on his unhealthy ways of coping with pain in the past and his realization that he needed to face things head-on – it can be powerful stuff, but luckily, tracks like these can also double as fun party material as Cudi gets back into his old style of straight hip-hop. “She Knows This” sees him largely abandon the melodies and get back to rapping over a trippy percussion-heavy beat that actually steadily speeds up in tempo as things get wilder at the party. Despite the extended, minimalist outro that drags on, it’s a pretty brilliant way to paint the world of the storytelling-based album, and a great showcase of Cudi’s skills as an MC. Continuing the inconsistencies, “Dive” is a pretty weak way to end the opening act. The track honestly reminds me of Trippie Redd as Cudi’s voice gets whiny and obnoxiously stretches words out on one of the more grating hooks.
Act 2 of the album is its darkest – it’s the movie moment where things look bleakest for the hero before their ultimate victory as Cudi is overwhelmed by Mr. Rager’s evils. The track “Damaged” is Cudi at the peak of his musical strengths, delivering some speedy and technical verses in a desensitized and menacing lower voice before sunlight breaks through the grimy rap beat and he briefly sings a passionate, Auto-Tuned hook over shimmering chords. There’s always been something strangely touching about Cudi’s vocal imperfections, especially when they’re backed up by music this regal. The world fell in love with him because he was a relatable everyman, and this genuine admission of being a “damaged man” as he strains to emote is another one of those magical moments. “Heaven on Earth” is another grim and shadowy rap track with an earth-shattering instrumental that honestly sounds like a demented Christmas song with its wind-chime jingle-jangles and rumbling bass. Cudi’s flirted heavily with rock music before, and that extended “YEAAAAAAH” he screams repeatedly on the chorus harnesses those powers and ratchets up the energy to a complete frenzy. “Show Out” brings out Skepta and Pop Smoke for a grime-influenced track where Cudi gets a little lost in the shuffle. Skepta dominates with his cold sneer as usual, but the Pop Smoke appearance is little more than recycled ad-libs that were only added for name recognition and Cudi’s more meandering style never really mixes with the vibe. Finally, “Mr. Solo Dolo III” sees the instrumental aspects calm down to put a spotlight on Cudi’s most distressing lyrics here as he anticipates death and calls out for help.
Act 3 sees Cudi gathering his powers and learning from the past in anticipation of the final confrontation with Mr. Rager. “Sad People” serves as a rousing call to action for his audience to join him on a positive journey forward, dedicating it to the “sad people who keep the blunt burning.” It’s another track where Cudi gets a little lost in the syrupy psychedelics and the overwhelming vibey nature of the instrumental, but manages to touch on some powerful topics that still elevate one of the less musically engaging tracks to something worthwhile. “Sept. 16” is similarly sluggish, but the lyrics don’t save it in the same way as Cudi replaces deeper thoughts on newfound emotional solace in a relationship with more typical oohs and na-nas. “Elsie’s Baby Boy,” on the other hand, sees Cudi looking back to his childhood and attempting to pinpoint the events that led to the dark clouds always following him, all the way down to the death of a pet gerbil. Loosely sampling the chord progression from The Animals’ “House Of The Rising Sun” and adding a marching-band style knocking drumbeat, Cudi’s wavering vocal performance is once again deeply moving as he reminisces on his lonely childhood. This leads into two of the album’s strongest tracks to close out Act 3. “The Void” has what might be the album’s brightest chord progression and a matter-of-fact and impossibly catchy hook about disassociating that’s delivered so happily it’s almost funny. The track is linked together by some of Cudi’s strongest singing on the verses and a heart-meltingly wholesome outro where he sincerely thanks his fans for sticking with him. “Lovin’ Me” invites indie darling and fellow sad person Phoebe Bridgers on board for an unexpected but excellent collaboration about learning to love himself, the two singing together on a triumphant hook.
As the stage is set, Cudi uses his hums like a battle march on Act 4 opener “The Pale Moonlight,” a looped melody underscoring the track along with some blaring synths and production from none other than E*Vax from Ratatat, who played a huge role in Cudi’s old sound. It’s certainly one of the best produced songs on the album, and Cudi sounds like a beast unleashed flowing overtop, now having found his happiness. Trippie Redd appears on “Rockstar Knights” sounding incredibly similar to Cudi himself other than his usual grating, blown-out ad-libs, but even though he takes away from the full enjoyment of the track, at this point the energy is so positive that hearing these two kindred spirits trading verses is enjoyable enough as Cudi puts Mr. Rager on the ropes. The musical ideas continue to fall apart on “4 Da Kidz,” which contains some truly strange echoing effects, but Cudi is audibly having fun and doing what he wants as he doles out life advice about staying strong to his young listeners. The album closes with “Lord I Know,” which Cudi calls a “spiritual hymn” as he dubs himself a warrior and places a final certainty in his faith to guide him through with some final strong rap verses and an experimental tribal-sounding beat.
Man On The Moon III is easily Cudi’s best solo album since its two predecessors a decade ago. Mental health has been a major theme in many of 2020’s biggest releases, and there haven’t been many who have had a worse time than Kid Cudi. Hearing him this reflective and triumphant while leaning into some of his greatest musical strengths is a fantastic time.
Favourite Tracks: The Void, Tequila Shots, Damaged, Heaven on Earth, The Pale Moonlight
Least Favourite Track: Dive