If you’re of a certain age, the first Man on the Moon, from 2009, probably meant something to you. Maybe you took your first bong rip while Kid Cudi chanted “I got 99 problems and they all bitches.” Or maybe you sent your middle school crush a link to “Cudi Zone,” and they responded with, “Your taste in music is sick!” Or maybe you gloomily stared out of your bedroom window and repeatedly played “Day ’N’ Nite” hoping one day you could move out and go post up on a Soho street corner in a Bape hoodie. Cudi’s music was there for a lot of transformative experiences. And even though he has hardly released any memorable solo music in a decade, he’s still seen through nostalgia-tinted glasses with hopes that one day he’ll change lives again.
To Cudi’s credit, Man on the Moon III: The Chosen is not a cash grab or a plea for relevance. He’s been doing relatively fine without it. (This year alone, he starred in the new Luca Guadagnino HBO show, appeared in the third Bill and Ted movie, and scored a No. 1 single with Travis Scott.) But even though Cudi’s heart is in the right place, Man on the Moon III is still like when the old rock band reunites and their costumes don’t fit anymore.
On the album, the old crew is back—Dot Da Genius, Mike Dean, Plain Pat, Emile Haynie, and even Evan Mast of Ratatat—and some new faces have been added into the fold: Most specifically Take a Daytrip, the beat-making duo who show up when the major Atlanta-based producers are too busy. To make the album seem more important, it’s split into four acts and attempts to follow a loose concept about trying to defeat his demons and find peace. Part of what made Cudi’s music appealing in the first place was that he was an everyman. His stories about how struggles with depression and loneliness affected his relationships were detailed enough to be personal but also vague enough to be easily applied to anyone’s life. That’s not the reality anymore, and Cudi doesn’t appear to realize it.
When he’s not trying to be relatable, Cudi excels. “Girl is tellin’ me she don’t know what she want/Lotta demons creepin’ up, they’re livin’ underneath,” he raps with malaise on the album’s best song, “Tequila Shots,” rattling off a snippet from his life instead of attempting to capture the zeitgeist. Over this familiar-sounding Dot Da Genius and Daytrip beat, his tone catches the perfect balance, too, not too humdrum or overly excited, which is usually the case for him.
The worst thing that has happened to Cudi, musically speaking, is the time he’s spent hanging around Travis Scott. On “Damaged,” the hollow arena-ready production, one-note croons, shrieking ad-libs, and an underwhelming drop check off all the boxes of a record generic enough to fit on Jackboys. The same could be said for “Show Out”; Pop Smoke’s verse sounds as if it was never meant to be used, the drill-influenced beat is like when fast fashion steals runway designs, and Cudi’s spirituality is shallow. Cudi seems to think he’s making records the crowd at Rolling Loud will eventually moshpit to, but it’s probably more likely to end up at dinner parties hosted by Virgil Abloh.
But even when Cudi pauses the rage, Man on the Moon III is no better. If it wasn’t real, “She Knows This” would be known as a lazy parody of a Cudi song: It starts off with a Michael Cera sample from Scott Pilgrim and ends with Cudi using vocal manipulation techniques that should have been retired after the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sessions. The second half of the album hits all of Cudi’s clichés: “The Void” has the lifeless hums; “Lovin’ Me” has the empty-hearted collab with an indie darling, this time it’s Phoebe Bridgers; “Elsie’s Baby Boy” has the half-assed singing on a miserable-sounding guitar sample that has plagued almost every Cudi record after Man on the Moon II.
And though it’s admirable to hear Cudi open up about his struggles with mental health and addiction, it doesn’t automatically make the music worthwhile. Cudi croons, “Say, ‘I’m waitin’ to die,’ I cry/Many nights I spent gettin’ fucked up, livin’ a lie,” on “Mr. Solo Dolo III,” a sequel to the Man on the Moon standout, but his flat vocals and plodding production just make it underwhelming. If anything, “Mr. Solo Dolo III” is only memorable because of its title, which like too much of Man on the Moon III is coasting on a legacy built a lifetime ago.
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