Kid Cudi's "Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin'" is an improvement on "Speedin' Bullet 2 Heaven," but that's not saying much.
With the new "album equivalent" streaming rules going into effect earlier this year, we've seen a lot of long albums from major label artists. Drake's 82 minute Views was arguably the first, and as it's still breaking Spotify records left and right, it's inspired other labels to ease up on their editorial duties and allow their artists to sprawl out. Schoolboy Q's Blank Face LP clocked in at 73 minutes, Tory Lanez's I Told You at 86, The Weeknd's Starboy at 69 (nice), and Ab Soul's Do What Thou Wilt at 77. For each of those, though, the formula either worked or made sense. Views wouldn't have nearly as many streams were its weak tracks cut; Blank Face's psychedelia lends itself to meandering; I Told You needed a good deal of that space to tell its linear story; Starboy had enough time for all of its emotional ups and downs; DWTW wasn't even as long as Ab Soul's previous album, so his fans are used to that bulk.
Kid Cudi's 87 minute Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin is longer than the aforementioned albums, and unfortunately, it makes the weakest case that its length is at all necessary. It's got some amazing moments, particularly in the production department, but each is dragged out ad infinitum and loses potency while Cudi goes dumb with the wordless hums, moans, warbles, gargles, and/or whispers until the last light of potential fades from the horizon. There are some powerful attempts by Cudi to slay those titular demons, but he leans too heavily on his vocal ability to captivatingly convey that passion and pain-- there's precious few lyrics that stand out for their lucidity or wit. Ever since Cudi stopped being a bars-oriented rapper over five years ago, that's kind of been his thing, but on what feels like a make-or-break album after the disaster of Speedin' Bullet 2 Heaven, his inability to be thrifty with his words stings more than ever.
Take penultimate track "The Commander" for example. What could be an empowering message of controlling one's own destiny has a hook that goes "No, no, no, no, no, no, yeah, yeah" and spends a quarter of one of its two verses like this: "The leaves bounce/Soarin' over trees, ah/Oh look at me go, ah/In the middle of the day." On 2009's Man On The Moon, Cudi crafted an intriguing world of isolation with similarly-meaningless moody melodies and sci-fi descriptors, but he used to be able to believably switch with ease between nightmarish woes on "Solo Dolo" and uplift on "Up, Up, And Away." Now he just sounds like he's on autopilot. It doesn't matter whether he's soaring through the air or crawling in the dirt, he sounds robotic and deploys clichés like they're haymakers. "Flight At First Sight" sounds like an android trying to wrap its head around sex; "Kitchen" is not only based around the age-old "if you can't take the heat, stay out of the kitchen" adage, but also riffs on "wish upon a shooting star" and "punch drunk love" without much good reason (what does "punch drunk love annoyed" even mean?). Cudi and his fans have always maintained that there's something deeper going on, some sort of metaphysical wisdom underneath lyrics that, if taken at face value, mean close to nothing, but other than "general personal struggle," PPDS doesn't convey much via Cudi's vocals. There's more going on in the lyrical department of, say, the average Lil Yachty song than there is in each quarter of this album.
With the music Cudi and his team have come up with this time, that's a damn shame. Cudi raps over beats that no one else in hip hop would, and while his sonic exploration has led him to some inhospitable realms in the past (most notably the toothless acoustic grunge of his last album), PPDS' sound is well-manicured and at times, transcendent. There's nods to vintage Cudi with synth-heavy space-outs, blippy electronic dance cuts, and indie rock-adjacent instrumentation (especially in the loping, "Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots"-style acoustic guitar on "The Commander"), but everything's more full and fleshed-out than it was when him and Plain Pat were just figuring out this sound. The back half of the album has the best string arrangements you'll find in rap/R&B this year outside of Jon Brion's on Frank Ocean's Blonde, some truly moving, thoughtfully composed accompaniment that might add more to this album than any other single element. There are some musical missteps-- the queasy dirge of "Releaser" and "Distant Fantasies," that unbelievably chintzy synth horn sound on "Surfin'"-- but if you boiled each track down to a couple of minutes of its core instrumental elements, you could make one hell of a beat tape.
There isn't a song on PPDS that wouldn't benefit from being shorter. Opener "Frequency" lets its beat play out, unaltered for the last minute while Cudi subtly hums over it. "Flight At First Sight/Advanced" only gets interesting in its second half. "Wounds" consists of a hook and two eight bar verses, and yet it stretches beyond four minutes. "Surfin'" ends with three straight minutes of yodeling. What Cudi needs, more than anything else, is an editor. PPDS wouldn't seem half as empty and soulless if it fit the majority of its lyrics into a 45 to 55 minute long project, and with how much negative space and repetition it has now, it doesn't seem like that would be an impossible task. Cudi's got the courageous impulses of someone who could be making deep, entrancing albums, but lacks a support staff willing to tell him "Hey, you sound too much like the Cryptkeeper on 'Releaser,'" or "Dude, no one spells 'Unfuckwittable' with one t," or "'The industry is so full of shit/Welcome y'all to the enema' isn't a very good punchline." Continually throughout the album, Cudi refers to himself with lofty terms like "The Chosen," "Cosmic Warrior," and "The Commander," but until he's able to actually say something in his music, he'll continue to seem like a confused kid unable to harness his vibrant imagination.