Kid Cudi’s sprawling ‘Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin” is almost great

Musical polymath Kid Cudi on Friday debuted a sprawling and mercurial sixth album. It’s a four-act deep dive of his consciousness, and Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ is almost a great rap record.

Bypassing the timeline that includes 2015’s overly honest 90-minute grunge and alternative turn, Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven, Passion marks a welcome reset to Cudi’s beginnings.

The now-famous account of the talented, if somewhat troubled, Cleveland native moving out to New York City with a demo, $500, and a pipe dream, lay the foundations for Cudi’s cult following. Serendipity would find Cudi working at streetwear giant Bathing Ape’s then-new storefront to meet destiny in being discovered by a more sane Kanye West. Working with other artists, also on the rise—such as D.C. rapper Wale—Cudi released a notable mixtape, 2008’s A Kid Named Cudi. Its single “Day ‘n’ Nite” would quickly display Cudi’s hipster appeal and commercial potential, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.

His proper debut, Man on the Moon: The End of Day—equipped with smashes “Pursuit of Happiness” and “Make Her Say”—would scale Cudi to heights he’s largely maintained due to rabid fans, despite his penchant for self-sabotage. More recently he’s fallen on even tougher times, checking himself into rehab for depression, disclosing that he was “not at peace.”

[Placeholder for https://www.facebook.com/kidcudi/posts/10154706102758586 embed.]

This would garner Cudi an insensitive, and generally awful response from an enemy in Drake, with whom he’s been feuding. As Drake raps, on middling campfire starter “Two Birds One Stone“:

You were the man on the moon
Now you just go through your phases
Life of the angry and famous
Rap like I know I’m the greatest
Then give you the tropical flavors
Still never been on hiatus
You stay xanned and perced up

Two months later, his fans get an authentic confessional, shining bright lights on what undermines Cudi, while expressing hope for a brighter future. Acts 2 and 3 of Passion, Pain, & Demon Slayin’ are a sticky and toxic atmosphere of personal pain and self-flagellation. The other portions (Acts 1 and 4) are bathed in hydroponic affirmation and self-reconciliation.

“You try and numb the pain, but it will never go away,” Cudi confirms to himself, slightly processed through Auto-Tune, on “Swim in the Light.”

Andre Benjamin shows up twice on the album and plays Cudi’s affirming mirror image, on the pop bounce of “By Design”: “Stop dueling with the true thing, I do think when you think too much you’re removin’ what’s moving.” Cudi channels Portishead and Massive Attack-esque trip-hop for “Releaser,” while also displaying great ability to manipulate his voice as he sees fit. Here, there’s almost an androgynous quality, with Sade’s subtle smoke as the clear inspiration.

Oh, and he runs down some rattling trap on “Frequency.”

Passion, Pain, & Demon Slayin’ has an epic album within its boundaries, hidden in the bloat of 19 tracks and nearly 90 minutes. While creative overextension has long been Cudi’s Achilles’ heel, here it’s an opportunity to explore his lyrical improvement, noticeably more textural and unforced. More importantly, it rings truer, free of fictional characters with an unmissable protagonist. 

Emotionally exposed, Scott Mescudi, in the real, continues forcing his way through Kid Cudi, the mask.

Kahron Spearman

Kahron Spearman

Kahron Spearman is a music and film critic whose work can also regularly be regularly found in the Austin Chronicle.