December 9, 2015

TEST SPIN: Kid Cudi — Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven

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I almost did not review Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven. Kid Cudi’s mammoth 26-song release is so uncreatively written and strangely produced that I doubted its seriousness. In a few days, I thought, Cudi would announce that the album was a ruse, and I did not want to be the gullible writer who spent 900 words describing specifically how Speedin’ Bullet had failed.

In the past few days, however, Cudi has only grown more serious. On December 1, Cudi tweeted a long statement explaining his decision to cancel tour dates. “Things weren’t together production wise and I need a bit to make some changes,” Cudi wrote. Three days later, Cudi raged against iTunes’ decision to categorize Speedin’ Bullet as Hip Hop/Rap. “SBTH is ALTERNATIVE, not HIP HOP/RAP like someone forcefully labeled it,” Cudi tweeted. Cudi aptly labels his latest work alternative, even referring to it as punk in the album’s skits. Slapping drums, feedback-friendly guitars and chanted vocals on “Fade 2 Red” and “Judgmental C**t” call to mind the experimental rock group Swans. Yet, even though Cudi uses the same elements as other experimental rockers, “Speedin’ Bullet” sounds vapid.

Cudi has always struggled to gain critical approval of his lyrics. Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene referred to Cudi’s 2010 Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager as “a compilation of the most two-dimensional art-school-kid clichés imaginable.” Reviewing Cudi’s 2009 Man on the Moon: The End of Day for The New York Times, Jon Caramanica wrote, “he doesn’t sound committed, only confused.” Despite Cudi’s refusal to either fully bare his soul or delve into his technique, his earlier releases at least contained some poetry, some playfulness with sounds and rhymes. Certainly “The moon will illuminate my room and soon I’m consumed by my doom” sounds saccharine and contrived, but it locks in with the moping, meandering vibe of “Soundtrack 2 My Life.” On Speedin’ Bullet, all of Cudi’s once existent rhythmic intricacies have disappeared.

Maybe Speedin’ Bullet’s stark, simple arrangements expose Cudi’s consistently plain lyrics. Maybe Cudi’s lyrics have dropped off since his emotional peak on his 2008 mix tape A Kid Named Cudi and 2009 LP Man on the Moon. Regardless of the chronology of his problems, Cudi is now floundering on both lyrical and musical fronts. At times, Cudi journeys into a nonsensical realm; “No more chicken sandwiches/Yes I will pay for the damages,” Cudi sings on “Adventures.” In other instances, he gets blunt and repetitive, singing “You’re just some loser little boy/Can’t ever do a damn thing right/You’ll never be shit” on “Judgmental C**t.” In fact, Cudi’s outlandish lyrics feel like a respite from the monotony that pervades most of the album.

Cudi displays a habit of marching along with his pounding, equally uncreative drumbeats, hammering out eighth and quarter notes. His plodding noticeably appears on “Man In The Night,” “Fade 2 Red” and “Fuchsia Butterflies.” When Cudi stops chanting, he uses a mixture of grunting, murmuring, whining and over-the-top theatrical intonation. A number of singers and rappers use signature inflections that become serendipitous, almost unexplainable forces in their music. Think, for example, of Chance the Rapper’s characteristic yelp. The inflections sound rehearsed and refined and signify artists’ confidence behind the microphone. In contrast, Cudi’s vocalizations convey polar opposite connotations.

When Cudi rambles and mutters through “The Nothing,” “Amen” and “Angered Kids,” he simply sounds meek. Cudi’s tracks are visceral to a fault. Frankly, it sounds like Cudi laid down a number of vocal tracks just to get something down, and then proceeded to ignore them until he released the album. A similar malaise pervades the album’s arrangements. The uninventive production comes as a surprise as longtime Cudi collaborator Plain Pat (the two have worked together since A Kid Named Cudi) co-produced Speedin’ Bullet. Even if Cudi and Pat’s albums sounded run-of-the-musical-mill, they were undoubtedly full and lush. Bolstered by vivid synths, the duo’s acute ears for melody and collaborations with established rap and indie artists such as Common and Ratatat, Cudi and Plain Pat produced a number of exquisite hits.

Speedin’ Bullet contains few tracks with compelling instrumentation. The first segment of the album’s opening track – “Edge Of The Earth/Post Mortem Boredom” calls to mind early Cudi through its celestial theme, ambient, reverb-heavy atmosphere and pretty, if repetitive, guitar riff. On “Embers,” Cudi most closely approximates the dreamy, anxious energy he sought throughout the album. “Fairy Tale Remains” sees Cudi eschew the poorly produced, overdriven guitar track for a melodic, bass-driven arrangement. Unfortunately, Speedin’ Bullet’s 23 (23!) other tracks do not deliver any interesting music to the listener. Cudi’s hyper-repetitive songwriting style quickly switches from sounding like a conscious choice to a lazy approach. Even in one of Speedin’ Bullet’s few positive reviews, Complex’s Chris Mench concedes, “Cudi’s clumsy guitar playing is only worsened by the muddled recording and production work.”

Mench argues that the “sense of unease” that the album imbues in listeners “comes from an artistic place,” writing, “much of Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven feels like Cudi forcefully exorcizing the demons from his head.” Speedin’ Bullet is viscerally powerful, sonically uncanny and conceptually baffling. But, whereas it may contain fascinating evidence of Cudi’s songwriting process, the album is light years away from sounding like a final product.

Shay Collins is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].