Art, ego, creativity, and drive do not compose the everyday conversational spitball, unless of course you’re encountering Kid Cudi. A consummate artist in the truest sense of the word, and an industry stalwart since his mid-2000s breakout, this is a man who has been forged through fire and has come out the other side with a singular perspective that shines through everything he does.
We all know Cudi’s ups and downs, including his struggles and triumphs with mental health and substance abuse, which have become a trailblazing and cathartic facet of his legend. Today, Cudi is content and uses his status as a visionary to its fullest potential. He has seen the darkness, and from it, gained a voracious appetite to achieve. For Cudi, life is a playground.
Beyond his several albums, there is also his film work, from his acting roles (the acclaimed Don’t Look Up) to his credits as an executive producer (Pearl, Malcolm and Marie). He’s behind a clothing line, Members of the Rage (MOTR), which he’s building to compete with the best of them. And he didn’t merely release his 2022 album Entergalactic, but concocted an entire animated companion series for Netflix. He was so hands-on, he even co-designed the clothes the characters wore. Most recently, Cudi is charged up about his newest musical effort, INSANO, which in his words features a “classic Cudi sound.” Interspersed with upbeat tracks primed for a night out, the album reflects his mood as of late.
It’s that buoyant and driven attitude that is on full display during our interview. As he puffed on his blunt, it took everything for me not to join him. There was work to do. That is, until the man himself told me to go for it, an appropriate sentiment considering it has been a brilliant motif for his journey.
We’re speaking on the occasion of FLAUNT’s 25th anniversary. So in honor of that, what was your life like a quarter century ago?
I was in the eighth grade going into the ninth grade. I was just a really goofy fucking kid. Class clown. I was friends with everybody. Every clique, I connected with. I was cool with the jocks, I was cool with the skater kids, I was cool with the emo kids. I was really a well-rounded kid, and I owe that all to Cleveland, my upbringing. It made me a well-rounded creature.
Was this around the time your mother taught music?
Yeah, I actually had her as a (choir) teacher in the seventh grade at Roxboro Middle School.
What was that like?
It was crazy. In that school you had two choices: band or choir. was so terrible at the trumpet, I almost failed out of the class. I only picked it up because my older brother played the trumpet, and I was at that age when anything my brothers did was the coolest shit ever. But I was so bad at the trumpet, I had to take her class. One of the funny things between me and my mom, she always tried to persuade me to do all these solos and shit. She was my first fan, the first one to realize I had some type of talent with singing. So I’d say, “Alright, I’d do this solo, but then you’d have to buy me these Jordans.” That was rare for my mom to buy Jordans. They were way too expensive for us.
That experience got me comfortable with being in front of a crowd. It was shaping me up to be a performer before I even realized it; putting me out there in the fire in front of 100 kids from my school and having to do a solo in front of everybody chanting and cheering and giving me a standing ovation. I remember I did “I Believe I Can Fly” in the seventh grade at our concert, and at the end people were cheering, and I got a standing ovation. It was like... Man, I was so pumped. It was one of those things when I felt proud of myself for the first time, and I could make my mom happy. She was so elated.
Was your mother still teaching when you became popular?
No, she had already retired.
If those two things coincided, the kids at school would have been lining up for her class. Kid Cudi’s mother is teaching music, she must know something!
But you know what’s crazy for my mom, every kid she taught knows her as Ms. Mescudi—it’s still mind-boggling for people.
How do you decide what to focus your day-to-day energies on? Your hands are in so many pots. What gives you the drive to work on so many disparate endeavors?
You know what it is... Truly? It’s something that’s been in my heart since I was a kid. I always had this thing where I was scared of becoming a loser. I did not do good in school, I was not the best student. I was getting into trouble, and there was nothing on the horizon that made me feel positive about the future. The only thing that gave me a glimmer of hope, just a slight sliver of hope, was the music. When I went to New York, achieved my goals, became Kid Cudi and got the deal, it didn’t matter because in my head I still thought, “I don’t wanna be a loser.” So when I’m doing (albums like) 808s and Heartbreak or Blueprint III, when I play the songs and everyone is excited from the booth, I’m not like, “Yay, they like it!” I’m like, “Okay, I have to do this like 100 more times. Stay serious, stay focused, what’s next? They’re gonna ask for more hooks. You can’t be a loser, you gotta fucking show up, you have to win.”
When I went to rehab, I felt like a loser. I felt like I failed, I felt like I let my fans down and the world down. I told myself when I come out of that, I want to be stronger, I want to be better, I want to do everything I ever wanted to do. I’m gonna reach my full potential and I’m not gonna be a loser. That’s what pushes me, and that’s why I want to excel at so many things, because I don’t want to be a loser. I know that sounds crazy, I know to you it’s like, “Cudi, you’re not a loser, even if you did the one album, you would not be a loser.”
We all have those things we have to use as tools to fuel us. And that’s something that is in me. I’m going to try things, but I’m not just going to try things, I’m going to do it the best. People don’t want to see you good at multiple things. You don’t normally see somebody that’s good at five different things. I want to show kids: this new generation, you can have your hands in anything and excel at anything and be great.
As long as you put the work in. Isn’t that the catch? I remember hearing that the late songwriter Burt Bacharach had such a drive that when he was receiving an award in London, he went straight from the ceremony to his hotel room to write more songs, skipping a party in his honor. And I don’t think he felt like he was missing out, but I think that’s lost on people. It’s so much work.
That’s what I need people to understand. My friends think I’m a madman. I work all the time, but I also find time for my family and I find time for my daughter. But people don’t understand how I have time for my family and these four different careers I have. But, I have this balance and it’s very fluid. For Man on the Moon for example, it’s not like back in the day when it takes a year-plus to make an album. I can make an album in two weeks and it’d be the illest shit ever just because I’m so advanced in my skill set. It doesn’t take up so much time, so I can do all these other things: design clothes, maybe write a movie or two. Write a season of a TV show.
I don’t feel like it’s work. Every single thing I do, I feel like I’m this kid in art school that was given a grant to do anything he wanted to create, and he’ll have the grant as long as possible, as long as he keeps pushing himself. Every time I make an album, I get a bunch of money from the label to make whatever the fuck I wanted to make. I take this shit seriously because this is my dream and I want to be here. I don’t fuck around. I don’t take this shit for granted. I’m very serious with this, and I have goals.
How did something like your clothing line, Members of the Rage, come about initially?
It’s truly just my brainchild to create all things fashion that I think I’ve always wanted. When I’m working on it, I’m like, “I can’t believe I’ve been depriving myself of this feeling.” It’s so much fun to make something tangible for people to wear, to have, to feel. There’s nothing like seeing people wearing your shit, and I really feel like MOTR has the potential to be one of the top brands in the next five years. I just want to keep pushing it, find new things and evolve to get better and better. Same mentality with the music.
Thinking back to your 2008 breakthrough mixtape A Kid Named Cudi which featured “Day ‘n’ Nite,” you outlasted so many artists from that era who are either no longer in the business or are currently touring as nostalgia acts. What’s it like maintaining that relevancy? They say it’s harder to maintain success in the music industry than to have your first hit.
Man, thank you for saying that. I feel so seen. It has been 15 years of consistent honesty as an artist. Making 11 albums by myself, writing every single word, and some albums I produced all by myself. Challenging myself, pushing myself, trying to show kids that you can be awesome and creative and weird and psychedelic and still achieve success. You don’t have to be this novelty act in a couple of years, but have a long and fruitful career being a free adventurer in music. You don’t have to sell out, or give people what they want to hear and not change your sound and be stuck in a world for ten years until it fades out.
I take this Bowie approach to everything I do. Every time I text with Jay (Z), his nickname for me is “Bowie.” He’s like, “Bowie, what’s good?” And it hit me finally after a while, I was like, “Yo, that is subconsciously what I’ve been doing my whole career.” The same way he tried to switch it up every time. I could make a whole bunch of Man on the Moons, but no, I want to try this or that. I can feel like I’m in a space that’s really rare for artists who have mainstream success. To challenge it all and risk it all, and be brave enough to have the balls to do that. Get with it, or not.
Would you say that being your own writer has propelled that? There are artists who rely on the songs that they’re given by a flavor-of-the-month songwriter. And if they’re not given those songs anymore, they’re powerless.
It’s like you’re guiding your own journey, 100 percent. There isn’t a word or a line I have ever said that somebody else wrote, my albums are all me. It gives me a satisfaction. My albums didn’t always sell well, some of them weren’t so successful commercially. But at the end of the day, I’m happy with them. I know it’s dope, and I don’t give a fuck about what anybody says. That’s how I feel. That’s how I feel about INSANO. The singles have been getting a lot of love, but I know there are people who are like, “This is not like old Cudi! This doesn’t sound like Man on the Moon.” I’ve tried to explain on Twitter: “Yo, I’ve evolved.”
Isn’t that criticism such a cliche at this point?
Yeah. If I kept making sad music for 15 years, there’d be something wrong with me. Like, “Alright, man! You need therapy or you need to get your shit together because it’s been 15 years and you’re still singing the same sad songs?” We have to show kids the light and my music has always been autobiographical, so we have to talk about where I am now. I can’t go in my mind and be like, “Okay, I feel amazing and fantastic, but let me write about slitting my wrists.” That’s not what the music is telling me to do. This is where the music is guiding me, and I think INSANO is going to challenge people. But there’s also a lot of shit on INSANO that’s classic, feel-good Cudi. It’s anthemic and it reminds you of my old albums. So it’s a mixed bag of all different flavors in an evolved way.
I truly believe this is the path of a true artist, you have to go with the feeling. When you start to think about things and get in your head, you ruin it. You contaminate it. You’ve ruined the pure energy. And I know it’s scary. That’s scary for a lot of artists. You can have an album that tanks. But fuck that, it’s our duty to challenge the listener and take risks. That’s a true artist. If you want to be on the top of the charts and make super easy records for people to consume, that’s one path. But it’s not about consumers, it’s not about what people are going to like.
I was thinking about how your music has been so cathartic for so many people. What’s it like for you when people say to you, “Your album saved my life.”
It’s overwhelming to me every time I hear it. Like, I can’t really stop the kids from saying it. There’s so much power in that and I just feel like I’m just a man and I told my story. But when I take a step back, it’s like: “No, Scott, not only did you tell your story that helped some kid in Minnesota deal with his abusive pops, or get out of school and graduate and get his life together and not do drugs.” I feel complete as an artist.
Every artist makes a choice, right? What are you trying to say or do? Are you working through ego, or do you actually want to reach out to people in a real way?
I am making music now because I love it. I love the competition of it, and I love being in the battle of it and the trenches. But I feel complete as an artist because I know that every album I’ve had has had a monumental effect on the listener. It’s not just some music to get dressed to and just party to. This shit is infecting your veins with something that gets you through the day. It’s a very powerful thing. It’s a very rare thing. This is all I ever wanted.
I thought about this before having things like a Grammy or a No. 1 album. I just wanted to help kids; this is all an SOS to the weird, lonely kids in the world. That’s what my first album was, that’s what I wanted it to be. It wasn’t like, “Oh, what’s hot now? I’ll make some shit that sounds like this.” Man on the Moon stuck out like a sore thumb, there was nothing like it in existence created in that time.
“At The Party” from your album INSANO features Pharrell and Travis Scott. I’m sure you can collaborate with anybody you want. How did recruiting them shake out?
I was in Paris, and I set up a studio out here. I connected with Pharrell, and it was that simple. He played me one joint, and it was more melodic and stuff. I find that when I meet producers, they’re alway playing me the “Cudi” records. And then I played him some stuff from the album and said, “I need something that feels mean, like you screw your face up to it.” He was like, “I know what you need.” And he whipped this beat up in 15 minutes, like he always does, and it blew my fucking mind. He did the hook immediately. I did my verse and months later, I caught up with Trav. He came to the studio, and he just knocked out the song. I played it for him, he loved it. He did his verse.
He liked it so much he even did another song, which is also on the album and is fucking really tasty. But it wasn’t like we were all together. At that time I was collecting records and I was seeing who fit where. I didn’t want to do a second verse on “At the Party,” and the only person who I feel that can do this right with me is Trav. Sometimes he doesn’t answer the phone, sometimes he doesn’t answer his texts. So I got lucky that day. That shit just came out organically.
How do you decide when it’s time to dip your toe into acting or music? When it comes to acting, is it opportunities that come your way?
Well, now that I have a production company I’m not really waiting for opportunities to come my way, I’m making them for myself. I have a TV show that I sold to Netflix; nobody knows about it but I’m working with my showrunner and I’m writing it with him. I have two movies I’m writing right now, 30 pages on one script and an outline on another. I bounce around. Most of the time the acting offers aren’t good. I’m very picky right now, because I’m proud of any movie I’ve done whether it did well or not. I’m happy every director gave me a shot. People were just giving me a chance at first.
Before we go, I was debating if I should take a hit of my vape before we talked because I didn’t want this to go sideways. But you’ve been hitting your joint the entire time.
Well, hit that vape now! Let’s do it. The interview’s over, and you can finally relax.
Photographed by Zhamak Fullad
Styled by Aly Cooper
Written by Rob LeDonne
Retoucher: Lily Moffet
Photo Assistant: Francesca Sostar
Styling Assistant: Kaamilah Thomas
Production Assistant: Cerys Davies
Location: The Sheats-Goldstein House