In Roger Ebert’s “Glossary of Movie Terms”, he defines a sequel as “a filmed deal”. Music isn’t film, but the definition still applies. With music, though, the deal is most often between the artist and the audience or the artist and the artist himself. Hip-hop musicians in particular tend to frame albums as sequels to capture some of the cache or success of the original work. That’s why GZA is making Liquid Swords 2 and not Beneath the Surface 2. In Kid Cudi’s case, following up his debut album Man on the Moon: The End of Day with Man on the Moon 2: The Legend of Mr. Rager seems mainly about carrying on the mood of the first album, keeping listeners in the same state of mind. This sequel at times plays less like continuation than repetition.
Man on the Mood: The End of Day set a cloudy scene inside our protagonist’s head, full of alcohol and drugs used to dull pain, ignore loneliness, ward off night terrors and get away from the doldrums of everyday life. The hit single “Day ‘N’ Nite” was the perfect encapsulation of all this: a late-night scene of attempted calm within a climate of inner turmoil. So was “Pursuit of Happiness”, where Ratatat’s music helped create the right tone for Kid Cudi’s (slightly) mixed feelings about his life of excess. “Up Up and Away” used bubbly pop to exemplify drugs as a vacation.
Man on the Moon 2: The Legend of Mr. Rager, which was prefaced by a series of horror movie-style Internet trailers, begins with a song where the key line is, “This is a journey”. The first album did feel like a journey, though in story it ended up circling around to similar circumstances, just with a different outlook on them. Where this sequel goes is already pretty familiar ground for Kid Cudi. The main subject is drugs as a means to get through life. The angle he looks at that from is fairly repetitious of the first album. Defiance about lifestyle choices and the quest to figure out his own mind were covered at least as well the first time around.
Occasionally, the songs, even if not going anywhere new, do have an extra confidence to them, perhaps the result of Kid Cudi achieving some success. “Mojo So Dope” is the best example of that confidence. It’s a relatively empty anthem, but one which wears its swagger well. The first single “Erase Me”, featuring Kanye West, similarly sounds big and confident. Both songs have that combination of presence, hooks and mood that made the best songs off the first album so compelling. Another of the highlights of Man on the Moon 2 achieves something different, tackling a hazy, hectic life by capturing vivid scenes of it. “The Mood” is skeletal and spooky, justifying the scary-movie allusions in the album trailers perhaps. It has a crazy Joker-style laugh repeating in the background, a general ghostly atmosphere, and the snapshot lyric “no one talks / lost in the mood”.
Musically the album sometimes goes for murky, sometimes for Technicolor flash. The former sound can sometimes still work well with his vocals and subject matter, like on “Maniac”, featuring Cage and St. Vincent, another potential single. Other times he seems too lackadaisical or almost comatose even, trying hard to capture the zombification of drug use. That difference sometimes recalls the difference between thinking romantically about drugs (a subject of much great art) and actually spending time with drug addicts (boring).
The album explores multiple reasons for obsession with drugs – spirituality, fantasy, genetics, compulsion, to avoid suicide. None are delved into as creatively as on the debut album. Even the best songs don’t express the complexity of his state of mind as vividly as “Day ‘n’ Nite” did. Too often he replaces that song’s level of detail with generality, replacing thoughtfulness with generic rebellion against uncertain enemies. Sometimes he seems to be falling into the typical trap of sequels: replicating instead of moving forward. In replicating, you always end up missing something. It’s like what Ebert wrote about another “legend of” sequel, City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold: “Like too many sequels, it has forgotten what the first film was really about.”
“Trapped in My Mind”, the title of the last track, seems like a summary of the album, representative of both its highs and its lows. Kid Cudi has demonstrated the ability to take one person’s complicated psychological state and translate it into colorful hip-hop. Yet that can be a trap too – getting so focused on the same thoughts and feelings that you can’t grow as an artist. What keeps that from happening here is the way Kid Cudi and his producers (Emile, Plain Pat, NoID, Dot da Genius, and others) continue to build alluring and sometimes fascinating soundscapes for his songs. If occasionally it seems like most of them are working from the template set by the two Ratatat-produced tracks on the first album, that’s still a great starting place.
One inadvertently illuminating moment comes on “The End”, featuring GLC, Chip Tha Ripper and Nicole Wray. On his verse, Chip Tha Rapper dives right into a specific narrative, taking you into his mindset. He does it well enough to crystallize the fact that it’s something Kid Cudi rarely does at all, not to mention doing it well. It’s a moment where the haze hanging over the album clears for an instant, where you have something specific to grab onto. Man on the Moon 2 offers those moments occasionally, but not often enough.