Despite his role as one of the most zealously forensic birthers of emo-rap and its tales of troubled mental health, there has always some disconnect between what Kid Cudi was saying and how he was saying it… or trying to say it all at once. That murky, melancholic jumble finally comes into greater bittersweet focus on “Man On The Moon III: The Chosen.”
As far back as his debut mixtape, 2008’s “A Kid Named Cudi,” through fiery, feeling-filled records such as “Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’” and even his Kids See Ghosts project with Kanye West two years ago, Cudi’s outlook was that of a solitary man, cursed by awareness’ intensity. Yet his rattled-mind narratives and multi-voice conversations could be as unfocused as his blurred-line musicality.
A cluttered thought process and a genre-babbling sonic vibe? Perhaps it was this gloomy messiness that kept the Kid out of the charts’ highest echelons, unlike some notable followers like Pop Smoke and XXXTentacion, stars whose lo-fi soundscapes better matched their slow-fried, single-minded lyrics.
No matter. With “Man On The Moon III: The Chosen” — the final part of the trilogy that gave us his first full album, 2009’s “Man on the Moon: The End of Day” and its follow-up, “Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager” — the Kid has become a man, and the dark he’s long portrayed has a crack where the light gets in.
At 36, he’s developing a more full-blown acting career, too. (Kid just landed a prestigious role as the queer, Black scientist-introvert in the film adaptation of the coming-of-age novel from Brandon Taylor, “Real Life.”) It’s possible that becoming immersed in other forms of storytelling has played into Cudi becoming more considered in his thoughts and spending less time simply riffing through untethered emotions.
At times sober and sobering, Cudi’s third time out on the “Moon” starts with the finger-snapping EDM-soul of “Beautiful Trip” and ends with his daughter, Vada, whispering “to be continued,” at the tail of the slow, steely “Lord, I Know.” The album generally finds his deep-breathing, sing-song-y baritone nestled almost exclusively in ambient synth-hop.
Ultimately, this nearly single-sourced sound is more consistent, and easier on the ears, than the alt-rocking “Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven” LP, or the metallic arena pomp of his addiction treatise “Going to the Ceremony,” less successful side trips from his noisier, frenzied catalog. The challenge for Cudi is to make this newfound symmetry as cutting as anything in his past.
On the Batman-inspired “The Pale Moonlight,” Cudi sounds almost ebullient as he playfully tap-dances across the stuttering track with lines filled with optimism: “Call to the lost, we deep / Had it all twisted, dead wrong / How do I find what I can’t see? / Lord, I was born to be strong.”
When he does ruminate, hard, on “Tequila Shots,” the struggle is clear, as his sanity is as slippery as Vaseline. “That’s my mind that’s speeding by, I’m holding on / Asking God to help, are you hearing me?” he sings, against the album’s most subtly catchy melody.
Pausing to consider the strife he’s brought upon his family (“Do this to my loved ones, I’ve got some nerve”), and a chorus that damns his psychic plague (“Can’t stop this war in me, in me, in me”), Cudi winds up on the other end of this mini-movie of a track with a plea to a god (“Hear me now”) and a declaration of stealth reserve (“This time I’m ready for it”).
There are features to be found on “III” with indie queen Phoebe Bridgers (the raw, silken “Lovin’ Me”), emo-rap acolytes Trippie Redd (“Rockstar Knights,” the only limp track on the album) and the late Pop Smoke (a solidly sad “Show Out”). But it’s when Cudi is by himself — lonely and punching through the darkness — that his somnolent, bittersweet reveries are at their tastiest.
The same sour-and-sweet soliloquies and harmonious soundscapes found on ”Tequila Shots” carry over to the synth-filled “Another Day,” the AutoTune-heavy “She Knows This,” the dub-toasted “Damaged” (where threats of going postal tet thwarted) and the heavenly plastic soul of “The Void.” This last song — which starts with the boyish vocal tones of “I will fall in the void, fall in the void just to avoid / Anything that can bring me down or fuck with my throne,” and ends with the manly “This is gonna be OK, I promise you” — is as poignant as anything that Cudi has done in the past.
And he’s been nothing if not poignant. But now, on this third installation of “Man on the Moon,” he’s also figured out how to be deeply and genuinely heartwarming, pragmatic and victorious. That might sound a little antiseptic where Cudi’s concerned, like a TED Talk with a pulse, but to hear a man truly work his shit out, from start to denouement — that’s righteous.