Kid Cudi’s “The Pursuit of Happiness” and the Music of the Future

Hip hop’s connection to science fiction goes way, way back—to these ears, it’s encoded in the genre’s DNA, thanks to its heavy sampling of P. Funk—but some groups make the connection more explicit than others (OutKast, Kanye West). Kid Cudi‘s album, Man on the Moon: The End of Day, is the latest addition to this lineage.1 This isn’t a novel observation by any means; it’s part of the album’s marketing strategy. In the week since its release date, the buzz around this album as a step toward the future—starting with the future of hip hop itself—feels fairly relentless, even for someone like me, who doesn’t keep up with current music nearly as much as he should. At a late-August listening session the record label (UniversalMotown) held, Kid Cudi was described as “the Jimi Hendrix of rap” and the album as a work that would “change the game.” Is it?

There’s no doubt that Man on the Moon has serious formal ambition. The album, structured in five acts, is about a young man’s journey toward self-actualization, complete with an interjecting narrator (the rapper Common) who breaks in over a lush, winking string section to tell us how the kid is doing. Then there are the songs themselves. Lyrically, they’re OK. Let’s just get this out of the way: The words do not hold up on the page very well, and there’s still too much of the juvenile objectification of women (i.e., any at all) that pervades too much hip hop. (Perhaps I’m also harder on hip hop lyrics than I should be because I instantly compare them to those of Gift of Gab, whose own connection to science fiction is huge, and whose upcoming album, Escape 2 Mars, will almost certainly deserve its own post—I mean, holy crap, look at that cover! Also, those of you who do not yet own Blackalicious’s 2002 album Blazing Arrow must stop what you’re doing and get it right now.) But Kid Cudi’s lyrics aren’t terrible, and they sound pretty good when Kid Cudi says them. His flow is really interesting: slower and much more laid back than the average MC, in his sing-song approach and the way that he moves the beat around, you start to get a sense of what the hype is all about. The music is also, by and large, quite engaging: spacey, vibey, and full of those 1980s synth sounds that are all over the place these days. It’s the past, repurposed and recombined, often quite cleverly. Which is what a lot of really good music is about, but we’re not at the future of music yet.2

No, what justifies the hype to me is a single song: “The Pursuit of Happiness,” which also features Ratatat and MGMT. Lyrically, the song is about drinking a lot and smoking a whole mess of weed. But also about something else, something bigger and creepier (“tell me what you know about dreaming, dreaming / You don’t really know about nothing, nothing / Tell me what you know about the night terrors, every night … you don’t really care about the trials of tomorrow / rather lay awake in a bed full of sorrow”). And the music: Listening to it right now, as I type, in my headphones, it’s hard to divorce it from the first time I heard it, driving too fast on the Bruckner Expressway late at night on a Tuesday, on the way home from a gig, and listening to the DJ on WFUV talk just a little too long before putting the song on. “Have you heard this album yet?” he said. “It’s, um… pretty interesting.” And then I almost had to pull the car over, because at that moment, it seemed I’d never heard anything quite like it. Those screaming, distorted synths. That huge, epic, yet skittering beat. The chiming piano. The guitars. All familiar elements, but how did they think of it, putting it all together like that? How did they knock it out of the park? And how many people will try to do what they did? I have no idea—but that song makes me want to try, and I can’t imagine I’m alone.

1 Beginning right from its cover image, reminiscent of SF movies from the 1970s and drawn by none other than Bill Sienkiewicz.

2 There are also a couple of pretty not-so-good songs on here. I can’t believe that “Make Her Say” was so popular. Yeah, I know, it has Kanye and Common on it. But really.

Brian Slattery is an editor, novelist, and musician who enjoys hot sauce.


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