The first two tracks on Man on the Moon: The End of Day are a one-two introduction to Kid Cudi and what he’s up to. There’s a murky interior monologue about success, the lack of it, and his inner conflicts, where he welcomes us: “you’re in my dreams”. And then there’s a much spunkier, much more sparkly theme song where he shows off his rapping style, proclaiming, “This is the soundtrack to my life”. The third song, actually, is part of the second half of that introduction. The two-and-a-half minute pop song, similarly stage-ready, but with an outer-space style (in part due to an OMD sample), introduces Kid Cudi’s willingness to experiment. The method of rhyming Kid Cudi displays on those two songs is of a piece with his style of singing: colloquial and messy, languid but piercing. His rap-singing is related to the sort-of singing style of Kanye West’s last album, 808s & Heartbreak, for which Kid Cudi co-wrote two songs. Like that album, it could be taken as claiming a place within hip-hop for feeling over virtuosity. Kid Cudi’s not exactly the Beat Happening of hip-hop, but he doesn’t care if he rhymes “girls” with “girls” or drops an awkward couplet.
Narrated rather unnecessarily by Common, reading in his best “deep thoughts” voice, Man on the Moon is structured as the story of a man. The plot is this: lonely guy sits in his room and dreams of success. He uses drugs to calm his fears and fend off night terrors. He eventually gets recognized as the star he always knew he was, and lives the superstar life… or maybe he’s still dreaming about that stage of his life, and we’re just witnessing what his dreams sound like.
After the opening three-song introduction, we get the three-song section of the album where he’s trapped in his solitary world. He’s stuck in obscurity, and the music sounds appropriately obscure. This is the weed section of the album, as opposed to the later section where he’s on psychedelics. Actually, references to both drugs abound throughout, but these three songs carry the blind-to-the-world quality of the former. They’re internal songs, where his mind-state is the subject. He sing-raps them all, sounding as emo as a rapper can be, though much less angry than anyone else who has been tagged with that dreaded word.
The transitional song from the darkness to the light is, appropriately enough, “Day ‘N’ Night”, the song that also basically marked his transition from mixtape rapper to major-label artist. It’s his chance to turn the theme of loneliness in the big city into pop gold, while also streamlining the melancholy aura, deepening it and making it clearer. It’s a remarkable song that within the album stands as a turning point, towards accessibility but also vitality.
When you structure an album like he does to musically match the transition from obscurity, the section of the album when he’s unknown and lonely has the tendency to sound as drab as he feels. The flip side: the section of the album where he’s a superstar, or at least imagining himself a superstar, sounds as bright, glorious, and confident as you’d want it to. From “Day ‘N’ Night” on, the album sounds surprisingly alive, given the sometimes leaden section before it. Kid Cudi doesn’t suddenly become precise and gifted as a vocalist or lyric-writer, but he does ride colorful and exciting music to great heights.
“Alive (Nightmare)” and “Pursuit of Happiness (Nightmare)” are both rather brilliantly produced by the guitar-and-electronics duo Ratatat, the latter featuring MGMT as well. Actually, Ratatat are doing what they always are. The brilliant part is that a mainstream hip-hop MC finally realized it’d be a smart decision to pair up with one of the many talented indie-label pop groups deeply inspired by hip-hop. Maybe someone will see it as a move to attract hipsters, and maybe it is, but it seems more like a necessary move outside the often conservative boundaries of hip-hop. (The conundrum of hip-hop is that one of the most revolutionary, world-impacting music genres, built on the hunger for new sounds, has been so insular.) The question with these collaborations isn’t “why?” so much as “why doesn’t this happen more often?”
“Make Her Say” is a different sort of a collaboration, a more standard hip-hop one, at least on paper. Featuring verses from Kanye West and Common, and produced by West, the song’s genius is taking a rather naughty lark, a rather silly central hook (a bit of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face”, turned around to be a crass oral-sex reference), and turning it into a hyper-catchy, forward-looking single.
“Enter Galactic (Love Connection 1)” is no doubt the best song ever written about convincing a lover to take ‘shrooms before making love. Beyond that, it’s the best PM Dawn update maybe ever, putting druggie philosophy (“if you can’t do what you imagine / then what is imagination to you”) and awkward come-ons over a crisp beat with a rainbow veneer. The album’s closer, “Up Up and Away”, is similarly a drug anthem, but even better as a pop single, as giddy and flighty as pop music can be. It’s an escapist song, and Kid Cudi’s overall fixation on drugs is an escapist move. Unlike hip-hop’s historical focus on drugs as an escape from the harsh reality of the streets, however, this is an escape from the harsh reality of one’s own mind and heart. Kid Cudi’s take on hip-hop hedonism has as its purpose the escape from one’s own fears and neuroses. He escapes the creatures that haunt him at night by turning himself into a larger-than-life entity: the man on the stage, the man on the moon.