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Revisiting an essential album: Kid Cudi's 'Man on the Moon'

by Ben Sapet

(Editor’s Note: This article was updated on 10/31/2019. None of the content was altered, but the photos were re-aligned in order to conform with Byte style guidelines)

On Sept. 14, 2009, Kid Cudi gave the world a vibrant, psychedelic tour of his mind and his lifelong struggle with mental illness. Now, ten years and several albums later, Cudi’s breakout concept album Man on the Moon: End of the Day remains as essential, fresh, and moving as ever. 
Image from All Music
In the ten years since Man on the Moon, Cudi has become an outspoken voice of mental illness and drug abuse. In that sense, he’s become a sort of leader in the hip-hop community for his openness and willingness to broach topics often treated as taboo in hip-hop. Here, Cudi bares his soul as only he can. He writes a vulnerable and honest self-portrait without puffing his chest or couching emotion in glamour. Storytelling sits at the core of this album. The album’s five-act structure (denoted by the CD’s liner notes) guides listeners through the album, which Cudi calls the “soundtrack to his life” on the similarly titled song.

Sharing his journey 

Act 1, titled “The End of Day,” introduces us to Cudi and his state of mind. Here, we’re also introduced to our narrator, Common, whose cinematic voiceovers transition between acts and tie the album together.
In “Soundtrack 2 My Life,” the centerpiece to the first act, Cudi describes feeling the seeds of his depression as a kid. Then, in the haze of the chorus, he croons:
"I've got some issues that nobody can see And all of these emotions are pouring out of me I bring them to the light for you, it's only right"
This chorus always gives me chills. Common’s narration hypes him up as an almost mythical hero but here, in the very next song, Cudi sits you down and offers to share a piece of himself with you.

Fighting back the dark

Act 2, “Rise of the Night Terrors,” delves into Cudi’s experience with mental illness. In “Solo Dolo (Nightmare),” his confident, expressive voice gives way to the cold, detached voice of his “nightmare” depressive states. These “nightmare” songs also see the production shift as dramatically as his tone and lyrics. The vivid colors and textures of the instrumentation become darker and more muted, but no less intense. On the next track, “Heart of a Lion (Kid Cudi Theme Music),” Cudi returns to fiery, infectious passion to push back against the gloom. The short-lived moment of strength here is all too familiar for people with depression and other mental illnesses. “Heart of a Lion” marks a brief reprieve before the sad reflection and doubt floods in on “My World (feat. Billy Craven).” The soft moments of the album provide the deepest affirmation. I feel a deep catharsis in being swept along with Cudi through the highs and lows of his emotions. Man on the Moon provides a raw connection between artist and listener, making it feel like a profound emotional release. 

Looking for relief 

From the sinking lows of Act 2, the third act slips into a deeper psychedelic state where Cudi finds a sort of astral clarity and an escape from his fears and worries. This is the album’s most vivid, trance-like section as the storytelling expands into a sensory dimension. The voiceover and the swirling change in mood imply that, here, Cudi takes an intense psychedelic drug to escape his sadness. Instead, though, his search for relief leads him to another nightmare.  “Day ‘n’ Nite (Nightmare)” is a different kind of a nightmare for Cudi. Now deep in the throes of his hallucinogenic trip, the wandering synths and now-iconic beat make this feel like an interstellar out-of-body experience as Cudi looks down to earth and takes inventory of himself, “the lonely stoner.” In this chapter of Cudi’s story, he detaches from the pain and stress of mental illness, simply acknowledging it rather than feeling it like before. Seeking refuge in another state of mind is a common impulse for people with mental illness. Cudi presents this authentically; exploring both the potent momentary relief and the deeper troubles that come with leaning on escapism.

Coping with depression

Act 4 sees Cudi slowly coming down from the high and finding meaning in the struggle itself. The four songs of this section explore different sides of his self-actualizing. The narrator describes this as Cudi finding his “sanctuary.”  After trying to push back against his mental illness and then trying to escape it, Cudi finds peace and purpose in embracing his highs and lows. This realization is a slow burn and it never feels like trite mental health guru advice; it’s Cudi’s own journey laid bare for an audience to dance to, vibe with, or connect with.

Coming alive

At two songs, the fifth act is the shortest section of Man on the Moon, but it’s full of relief and breathless promise. The album’s closer, “Up Up & Away,” gives us a glimpse of Cudi as the fog of a depressive episode lifts. The track is a bright inversion of the album’s introspective melancholy.  You can feel Cudi’s excitement in every part of the production. This “new beginning” captures the way it feels to come out of depressive state and the deep joy at feeling alive again. 

Long live the man on the moon

The whole album is so dynamic and vivid and authentic, it makes my serotonin-starved brain light up with every listen. For an album about loneliness and Cudi’s internal struggle, it forges a deep connection for listeners who share his pain. When I’ve needed it, joining Cudi in reaching the end of a depressive episode helps center me back the path back toward feeling present in my life. Sharing a journey together seems to help both the artist and the listener thin their mental haze, even just a little. By the end of the album, Cudi truly becomes “A voice who spoke of vulnerabilities and other human emotions and issues never before heard so vividly and honest,” as he’s called on the first track. As Cudi and others use hip-hop to carry on this conversation about mental illness and addiction, it’s worth remembering that it started here, with the man on the moon.
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