Rap Is Not Pop: Kid Cudi, Eminem and the Perils of Addiction
This post is inspired by a commenter on my recent piece about Eminem and his album Recovery. â€œSomebodyâ€™s finally on the radio talking about NOT doing drugs. Thatâ€™s a good thing,â€ wrote Halo in the comments section. â€œI know that itâ€™s tough being clean and still keeping it real.â€
Why has there been so little hip-hop that addresses drug and alcohol addiction? Itâ€™s not as if rappers arenâ€™t abusing drugs: The tabloids are filled with their exploits, whether itâ€™s Lil Wayne serving time for drug possession, T.I. violating his probation over Ecstasy tablets and codeine syrup, or Gucci Mane reportedly heading to rehab. It appears that the days when it was only â€œcoolâ€ to smoke weed are a thing of the past. Yet those personal struggles rarely make it into the music.
Kid Cudiâ€™s new album, Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager, offers a striking counterpoint to Eminemâ€™s Recovery. While Eminem related his drug problems like he was confessing at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, Kid Cudi hides his troubles within ramblings about the pressures of fame. He celebrates his love of herb on â€œMarijuanaâ€ â€“ but marijuanaâ€™s not a drug, right? However, he doesnâ€™t address his public struggle with cocaine, save for an audible snort during â€œAll Along.â€ Man on the Moon II reflects the rap communityâ€™s general ambivalence towards party favors, and how overuse of them can destroy careers â€“ and lives.
Rare are the examples of rappers who cop to drug problems. When Coolio emerged from WC and the Maad Circle to launch a solo career, he used his criminally-underrated 1993 single â€œCounty Lineâ€ to note that he lost years to crack addiction. And after earning a sordid reputation for being a coke fiend, Cage got clean, and has used subsequent albums like 2005â€™s Hellâ€™s Winter and 2009â€™s Depart from Me as post-rehab therapy. These and songs by others like Fatlip (â€œWhatâ€™s Up Fatlip?) and Tech N9ne (â€œT9Xâ€) fall into the realm of public confessionals.
Then there is Andre 3000, who admittedly wasted the success of OutKastâ€™s 1994â€™s debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik on living the rap life â€“ getting high and chasing girls â€“ before experiencing a spiritual awakening. â€œIn the Jacuzzi catching the Holy Ghost/ Making one woozy in the head and comatose,â€ he remembers on â€œLife in the Day of Benjamin Andre,â€ the closing track to OutKastâ€™s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. â€œI hadnâ€™t smoked or took a shot of drank because I started off the second album on another note.â€ Andre made such a remarkable visual and musical transformation for OutKastâ€™s second album, 1996â€™s ATLiens, from wearing a white robe and head scarf to reciting Nuwabian beliefs that the Egyptians were descended from aliens, that some fans speculated he was on drugs. On â€œReturn of the â€˜Gâ€™â€ from 1998â€™s Aquemini, Andre staunchly defended his new look: â€œReturn of the gangsta/ Thanks ta/ Them n*ggas who get the wrong impression of expression/ Then the question is, â€˜Big Boi, whatâ€™s up with Andre?/ Is he on coke?/ Is he on drugs?/ Is he gay?/ When yâ€™all gonâ€™ break up?â€™/ When yâ€™all gonâ€™ wake up/ N*gga Iâ€™m feeling better than ever/ Whatâ€™s wrong with you?â€
Fans didnâ€™t question Andre 3000 because he stopped getting high. They wondered why he changed. The hip-hop audience seems to loathe personal and artistic evolution unless itâ€™s within a pop context of Bowie-esque visual and sonic transformation; OutKastâ€™s mastery of that dynamic made it one of the past decadeâ€™s best-selling artists. But for those who donâ€™t hold pop ambitions, staying the same appears to be the only recourse. On â€œCan It Be So Simple (Remix) from 1995â€™s Only Built 4 Cuban Linxâ€¦, Raekwon rhymed, â€œNow Iâ€™m all about G notes/ No more time for weed mixed with coke/ I wash my mouth out with soap.â€ Of course, he spent much of his 2009 sequel Only Built 4 Cuban Linkâ€¦Part II regressing into cocaine glory.
Another example of creative recidivism is Queensbridge rapper Prodigy. On Mobb Deepâ€™s 1999 hit single â€œQuiet Storm,â€ he vowed, â€œI spent too many nights sniffinâ€™ coke, gettinâ€™ right/ Wastinâ€™ my life/ Now Iâ€™m tryinâ€™ to make things right.â€ Years later, he released the excellent Return of the Mac, and its centerpiece was â€œMac 10 Handle.â€ â€œI sit alone in my dirty ass room staring at candles/ High on drugs,â€ he begins, interpolating a lyric from Geto Boysâ€™ â€œMy Mind Playing Tricks on Me.â€ Prodigy never says what type of drugs heâ€™s on. But Alchemistâ€™s sampling of Edwin Starrâ€™s â€œEasinâ€™ In,â€ which he turns into a mottled, bluesy refrain for Prodigyâ€™s violent rant, leaves the impression that the rapper is all tweaked out.
â€œMac 10 Handleâ€ illustrates that, when it comes to exploring the depths of drug addiction, rappers tend to rely on our imaginations as a guide, while marking a path with breadcrumbs like dusty blues loops, downbeat and menacing keyboard sounds, and lyrical admissions of paranoia. These bleak arrangements are meant to contrast with the Ecstasy-popping adventures of Mack 10â€™s â€œPop X,â€ Gucci Maneâ€™s â€œPillzâ€ and D4Lâ€™s â€œScotty.â€ Whereas one side highlights Ecstasy as a positive experience and frequent sex tool, the other hints at overuse, a burdensome monkey on the back.
Incredibly, despite all the recent headlines of arrests, real drug addiction remains taboo in hip-hop. Many of us remember the crack epidemic of the 80s and 90s and how it affected our communities. And so, despite the Ecstasy vogue, hip-hop fans donâ€™t want to return to the wanton abandon of the disco era and Grandmaster Melle Melâ€™s â€œWhite Lines (Donâ€™t Do It).â€ But what if that era has already reappeared, but we just donâ€™t want to admit it? In a world that emphasizes mastery of your environment at all costs, copping to addiction signifies a loss of control and personal weakness.
Kid Cudi is often dismissed by critics as an electro-hop dandy, but heâ€™s just as obsessed with dominance as the next rapper. So, for The Legend of Mr. Rager, he explained his personal troubles through a prism of the perils of fame and leading a revolution or â€œRevofev.â€ He unveils a new sound, too. Whereas Man on the Moon: The End of Day celebrated introspection as a psychedelic journey, complete with electro sounds and stories of mushroom-eating as foreplay (â€œEnter Galactic (Love Connection Part 1)â€); The Legend of Mr. Rager simmers with melodramatic strings, emo-ish ballads and cryptic lyrics like â€œAll Alongâ€™sâ€ â€œIâ€™m addicted to highs/ Would you like to know why? â€¦ I donâ€™t want what I need/ What I need hates me.â€
Narcotic addiction isnâ€™t just an occupational hazard for celebrities both real and pseudo, but a problem that affects wide swaths of the population. Perhaps thatâ€™s why Eminemâ€™s Recovery may be less musically sophisticated than The Legend of Mr. Rager, but it is more honest. â€œYouâ€™re lying to yourself,â€ says Eminem on â€œTalkinâ€™ 2 Myself.â€ He could be speaking for a generation of MCs dabbling with hard drugs yet are afraid to look in the mirror.
Photo by Pamela Littky.