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Album review: Kid Cudi, 'Man on the Moon'

September 15, 2009 |  5:17 pm
Kidcudi In the middle of "Enter Galactic (Love Connection Part 1)," one of the few flirtatious songs on his moody, supercool new album, art rapper Kid Cudi asks a pertinent question. "If you can't do what you imagine, then what is imagination to you?" he teases his paramour, with whom he might have just shared a hit of Ecstasy.

That challenge makes a central point about the 25-year-old Kid Cudi's mission, which is to portray his own mind's meanderings within soundscapes as vivid as those other rappers create to describe gang battles or club-to-crib seductions.

Following in a line that includes legendary fabulists like Ralph Ellison and Sun Ra and intersects with hip hop via artists like the Wu Tang Clan, Outkast and Cudi's mentor, Kanye West, this Cleveland-raised former film student expands hip-hop's language by exploring the inner life of the inner city the way others focus on the action in the street.

Cudi, now a hipster Brooklynite, ponders his emotional downturns and upticks in sing-song rhymes set within spacious electronic sound beds. His father's death and his subsequent struggles as a teen preoccupy him, as do his daily efforts to inspire himself to be a "lion," not the paranoid insomniac he dubs "Mr. Solo Dolo."

It's all pretty self-indulgent, but in a way that's the point. Cudi's trying to do what Louis Armstrong did, according to Ellison: "He's made poetry out of being invisible." Alienated and adrift but determined to make his imaginings concrete, he presents his psychic turmoil (punctuated by the occasional seduction) as a true adventure. His flair for surrealistic imagery often helps his reveries soar.

So does the production by an array of studio experimentalists including West, Emile, Plain Pat and the dance-pop duos Ratatat and MGMT. Creative samples and an airy mix help these tracks surprise the listener, even after many plays, and make "Man on the Moon: End of the Day" a standout release.

The one overly consistent element, unfortunately, is Cudi's voice. His unhurried nasal flow is highly recognizable, but doesn't quite convey the sly wit of precursors like Slick Rick and Snoop Dogg. He's best when he lets the fog lift on more extroverted cuts like the funny "Make Her Say" and "Enter Galactic." Let's hope Kid Cudi finds a few more ladies to take into space on his next journey; they seem to help him get beyond his habits and hang-ups.

-- Ann Powers

Kid Cudi
"Man on the Moon: The End of the Day"
GOOD/Universal Motown
Three stars