Kid Cudi is animated. Grinning. Cheerful, even. And why shouldn’t he be? Indicud, his third solo album, debuted at #2 on the Billboard charts, he’s got a beautiful house in Los Feliz (the neighborhood in Los Angeles known for its nouveau riche population), and he has a cadre of fans that have his back during Internet dust-ups. But he hasn’t always felt as light as he does now; Cudi built a career on saturnine thoughts rapped over murky beats, a sound born from a man who struggled with drug addiction and self-doubt. Yet here he is: grinning, chatty, chilled out by his pool. “You want some juice?” he asks politely.
Cudi, born Scott Mescudi, is thinking before he answers, because A) he’s a thoughtful dude and B) so much has been made of his history of substance abuse, depression, therapy, and the temporary, self-imposed rehab period that followed, that he’s weary of discussing drugs further. “But I can’t say that acid didn’t fucking fine-tune the shit,” he says about the Indicud track “Unfuckwittable,” the smoke spiraling from his lips, “’cause I’m telling you, dude, after I dropped acid that session, bro, I’ve been on fire.” He has a self-assuredness in his voice that he seems to be trying out.
For the uninitiated, there is nothing in today’s rap game even remotely like Kid Cudi. His music has never been easy to categorize—he’s a rapper, yes, but his delivery is sizzurp slow, often more sung than rapped. He came to fame with the ultimate ballad of a lonely stoner, “Day ’n’ Nite,” on his debut mixtape, A Kid Named Cudi, which caught fire during the heyday of music blogging. His first two albums were both called Man on the Moon and were heavily influenced by his father’s death and Cudi’s subsequent drug addiction. “Pursuit of Happiness,” his anthemic hit, has lyrics about night terrors and drunk driving—hitting a nerve with outcasts who like hip-hop.
As unorthodox as some of his moves have been, Cudi has always had one foot in the mainstream. He’s the Crispin Glover of rap music. He lent vocals to Kanye West’s 2012 Grammy-winning “All of the Lights,” and was the guest artist du jour from 2008 to 2010. His collaborations read like a weird kid’s iTunes on random: David Guetta, Snoop Dogg, Shakira, Steve Aoki, Ratatat, MGMT, 3OH!3, Cam’Ron, Jay-Z, Robin Thicke, The Black Eyed Peas. Indicud, for god’s sake, features soft rock balladeer Michael Bolton alongside Los Angeles indie rock newcomers Haim and Father John Misty. “I have an eclectic ear. I’m just feeling really lucky to be able to get the combination of features that I had,” he says, “and how the album flows so well with so many different artists and still works. I’m just really happy.”
Where his first two albums focused on darkness, depression, mortality, and self-analysis, Indicud is inching toward bouncier beats, more relaxed songs, and confident lyrical matter. Maybe the world has caught up with him, and there’s a company to his misery that’s blunting the anguish. “Unfuckwittable,” the track improved with LSD, is boastful, something that would be unheard of a few years ago. And the first single, “Just What I Am,” features lyrics about frustration, drinking, punching walls, and compulsive shopping as an act of healing, but the most telling lines go: But, I can’t fold, some poor soul got it way worse/ We’re all troubled, in a world of trouble/ It’s scary to have a kid walk this Earth.
In the song, he’s referring to Vada, his daughter who turned three in March. He stubs out his cigarette, and instantaneously snaps from carefree Cudi to dead-serious Scott Mescudi. “I’m still gonna keep it funky, but at the same time, I’m more conscious about how I do it,” he says, acknowledging the divide between his Los Angeles life and his Chicago life, where Vada lives with her mother. Never the twain shall meet. “She’s just now getting hip to ‘Day ’n’ Nite.’ She’s like, ‘Dad, sing ‘Day ’n’ Nite,’’ and I couldn’t believe it. I make sure to sing the ‘lonely loner’ instead of the ‘lonely stoner.’”
Cudi credits Vada’s unconditional love with a sense that someone needs him, and he’d better slow down if he wants to be in her life. “It is an instant wake up call,” he says, clasping his hands together. “I just didn’t want to be an irresponsible person anymore. I wanted to have some type of tact with how I live my life, and how I carry myself in public. I’m a fun person though—give me some whiskey, we’re partying. I like showing that side of me, the fun side, but when I’m in those moods where I know the day is going to be long and I’m in a funky mood, I look at the bright side. I never used to do that—I used to fall deeper into the funk. I’m just happy I can see my daughter when I want.”
In fact, Cudi landed in L.A. just moments before the interview. He had gone straight from Atlanta, the filming location of the upcoming action flick Need for Speed, directly to Chicago to spend time with Vada. Cudi’s film forays are of note, because he’s not just playing himself, or a version of himself, but real characters. This isn’t some vanity project like 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, as Cudi’s actually forging a sincere acting career. It helps that he genuinely has screen presence, abetted by a nifty articulation that translates to comical, earnest characters. His acting career began with his loveable goofball Domingo in HBO’s underrated How to Make It in America, and just like that, Cudi has roles in three films, including the apocalyptic thriller Goodbye World, set to open at the L.A. Film Festival in June, and the romantic comedy Two Night Stand, set to hit the festival circuit in the fall.
Need for Speed may be based on the mega-popular, high-octane racing video game franchise, but with Emmy-winning actor Aaron Paul, Michael Keaton, former Flaunt cover star Dominic Cooper, and Imogen Poots all involved, it promises to be intriguing at the very least. However it turns out, Cudi is clearly enjoying the change of pace from his music career. “The acting thing for me is just new and exciting,” he says, leaning back in his chair and looking up at the darkening sky, now a deep blue. “It’s not stressful at all, unless it’s a day where I have to do a scene where I cry. That’s always a tough day and sometimes the day after. But I don’t have to worry about shit. With music, I go to sleep nervous, I wake up in the morning nervous like ‘Shit, is that mix right? How does it sound on these headphones? How does it sound on a laptop?’”
One of the ways Cudi combats those demons is through the 140-letter teachings of the Dalai Lama, who is the only person he follows back on Twitter. “Lama D,” says Cudi, “that’s what I call him. He’s cute, I love him. And the cool thing is, you can just follow his feed, and he’ll just be dropping gems on you.”
Cudi’s contentment has caught some of his fans off-guard, especially those who look to him for a particular brand of self-doubt. “A lot of people go [mocking voice]: ‘Oh man, you switched it up.’ Look, there are motherfuckers out there that are doing the same repetitive bullshit. You can listen to that, man,” he says, confronting his hypothetical haters. “Don’t come to me with no whining. I don’t wanna hear that shit. You know what type of nigga I am. ‘The Prayer’ is still the most odd record ever created. Ever. ‘Solo Dolo,’ same deal. I’ve always been out there trying new shit. When motherfuckers don’t hear me talking about wanting to kill myself or me being a sad little kid no more, they’re like, ‘Aw, damn.’ I fucking got my shit together and grew. Motherfuckers my age don’t always have their shit together. A lot of people I know are coming out of jail or dead. And I just feel really blessed to be where I’m at.”
“It’s a whole ‘nother Cudi right now,” he says. “I’m making movies that are awesome. Fucking entertaining people in another way. That’s a new thing for me: making people laaaugh. Instead of making people all sad and down, now I’m really bringing another type of joy into people’s lives.”
Two days later, on a scorching dry summer afternoon, we meet up again. Cudi hops into the vintage Mercedes Benz he got a few years ago. “I want to take the old school,” he says. “It’s a 1969.” He points out that everything in the car is original, from the electric windows, which unroll at a snail’s pace, to the speakers, from which the crackled sounds of Top 40 radio spew forth. Cudi likes to listen to Top 40 and gripe about the soulless quality. “Listen to her,” he says about a particularly dippy pop song. “Can you imagine that session?” He chides the radio, admonishing it for bringing forth this vocoder-heavy, value-less filth. And yet he listens on, perhaps to hear what the enemy is coming up with, a form of torturous espionage.
Cudi takes a long hit off a portable vaporizer. [Disclosure: I brought the drugs.] The old car is heavy with steel, and Cudi whips it down an open section of Los Feliz, murmuring about how they don’t make ’em like they used to. Snoop Dogg comes on the radio, and Cudi says, “My man.” The radio crackles over our conversation, so we drive aimlessly, listening to pop songs, almost windy enough to cool the air a little.
We dip down into Hollywood, and drop by Kelly Cole, a boutique on Fairfax, where Cudi proceeds to dig through stacks of vintage T-shirts looking for a particular style—ironic, but not too ironic, big graphics, eye-catching, certain bands like Pink Floyd. He eyes an old Michael Jackson tour shirt before settling on a shirt with a tuxedo print. “You’ll see that on stage,” he says, holding up his prize.
It turns out the owner of the shop is a DJ, and he recognizes Cudi. “I was the first guy to play the Crookers’ remix [of ‘Day ’n’ Nite’],” he says. Meanwhile, Cudi is running slight game on the rock ’n’ roll chick ringing up the pile of shirts he’s selected. The owner gifts Cudi a pair of jeans. Life is good when you’re a star.
Later, in the car on the way home, he’ll say, “that’s the kind of girl I get into.” He’ll probably return to that store—he has favorites—and he’ll see her and chat her up again, just like he’s navigating the streets of Los Feliz with confidence. The heavy car peels around corners with haste, but Cudi’s totally in control. But more than that, he’s unfuckwittable.
Photographer: Michael Muller at Mullerphoto.com.
Stylist: Jenny Ricker for Starworksartists.com.
Groomer: Jason Schneidman for soloartists.com.