Last week, Scott Mescudi (better known more by his stage name Kid Cudi or Cudi for short) checked into rehab for depression and suicidal urges and did so with a public confession on Facebook. This started what I believe is an important, yet long overdue conversation about mental illness. I was on twitter discussing it with a friend and he tweeted at me, “Kid Cudi changed your life”. I agreed because Kid Cudi is something far beyond a pleasant sounding combination of samples and tones grouped with poetic set of lyrics. He has a differing sincerity as an artist that I believe sets him apart from others.
I first got into Kid Cudi in early 2010, Pursuit of Happiness just got released and to be honest I never really considered myself anything more than a lukewarm hip hop fan, my collection was extremely small. I liked 808s and Heartbreak from Kanye West and a small number of other artists such as Eminem, but that was about it. As much as I enjoy those other artists, not much else has emotionally connected with me as a listener like Kid Cudi did and continues to do. Kid Cudi as an artist has this fascinating ability of making something far off seem oddly close and intimate while also making the unfamiliar, familiar.
I first heard Kid Cudi’s 2009 Pursuit of Happiness at a party which can almost be considered prophetic given its meaning. It sounded like a party anthem, and the listening location seemed to relate to it in that way. It was loud, catchy, and fun to dance to, but when I heard the lyrics I was blown away when I realized the self-awareness found within it. On the surface, the song sounds like it’s glorifying substance abuse, but it’s attempting to actually do the opposite and point out its fleeting nature.
♬I’m on the pursuit of happiness, and I know Everything that shine ain’t always gonna be gold♬
That’s Shakespearean, and I don’t mean that as a hyperbolic way, that’s actually a well known saying from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. This is wisdom that Qoheleth speaks of in Ecclesiastes, many of the things we think we will find satisfaction in will be empty or meaningless. It reminds me of an ancient curse, “may you get everything you could ever possibly want.” Anyone who’s ever been unhappy with their lives and has desired happiness to the point where they are willing to risk everything for it can find this song something they can easily relate to.
“When I’m singing about driving drunk on “Pursuit of Happiness” on Man on The Moon, you may remember that it was a nightmare. It was meant to be scary, the craziness, the fact that this person chooses to look for happiness in substances; and that’s scary, that’s a terrible combination, that’s a terrible way to go about things." - Scott Mescudi
If you watch the music video directed by Brody Baker, the themes are even more apparent. The party around Cudi takes place in slow motion, but Cudi remains singing at normal speed. This insinuates a sudden moment of Epiphany and self awareness by contrasting him with his surroundings. If you watch the megaforce version, Cudi struggles to even get off his couch. Themes of depression and anxiety are not something you would expect to find in a party anthem. Cudi struggles to even find the motivation to even embark on his pursuit, and when he does, he finds himself at another party where it all feels like a dream state. The different videos are extrapolated perspectives that view the ethos of the song from different directions. However, In the outro of the song, Cudi brings them both together and repeats the chorus by himself, but changes the lyrics slightly.
♬Pursuit of happiness, Yeah and if I don’t get it, I’ll be good♬
This is followed by a moment of remorse of how he pursued, this is a profound acceptance of the fact of life that there are some objects that we desire that we will never fully obtain. Given the culture-at-large’s worship and pursuit of wealth, health, satisfaction, and comfort, hearing that acceptance is a thoughtful moment of lucidity. However, my intention with this post isn’t to just break down song lyrics as if I’m back in high school. The roots of Cudi go far deeper than we think.
David Foster Wallace’s essay, E unibus pluram: television and U.S. fiction drove home a very surprising point about how postmodernism (and more specifically, irony) has had a negative impact on our culture. For Wallace, it was plainly apparent in television during his time and even still in much of today. I suggest reading the full essay because my attempt at summarizing it will never do it justice, but in a nutshell, irony used to serve as an effective method of critique that revealed hypocrisies. However, the problem now is that irony has become normalized to the point where it is essentially self defeating. It becomes an infinitely spinning carousal that leads to nowhere. Using irony to critique a television show was fine, but it was difficult to critique a show that was ironic already in the sense that didn’t take itself serious to begin with. It would be like trying to have a serious conversation with a person who is sarcastic 100% of the time. Referring back to Pursuit of Happiness, Cudi is utilizing irony there, but he doesn’t utilize irony for the sake of being ironic, he’s utilizing ironic in an unique way that leads to something else. It leads to something else which is far deeper and relatable, and that something else is sincerity.
The process for hopping off the irony carousal is to focus the view to someone that the audience can connect with, but in a specifically sincere way. Now sincerity is not just summarized as being a little more honest, it is a few orders of magnitude different. It requires an almost catastrophic presentation of vulnerability, a flawed, insecure lunge that is surrounded by fear of rejection. Have you ever been in a situation where you were just about to confess your love for someone and you didn’t know if it would be reciprocated? Sincerity is life threatening, there have been people all throughout history who have thrown themselves off of precipices in moments of overwhelming despair when that sincerity was taken advantage of. There are so many times in all of our lives where these moments of sincere vulnerability exist. And in our culture where mental illness has a situational stigma, even the smallest moments of honesty in that conversation are exceptionally vulnerable. This is due to the fact that mental illness is only discussed whenever there is a mass shooting somewhere. Mental illness has been turned into a caricature, varying between a mugshot of someone on the evening news or the homeless guy who shouts at the monsters under the highway. This drives people who struggle with mental illness to dive deeper into the darkness of the cracks and hide rather than open up to those around them, or even for some, to confront it themselves.
Walking through Cudi’s discography from Man On the Moon, there is an increasing progression of this sincerity. A notable example of such is in his most recent album, Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven. Technically speaking, this album is a mess, it’s rough around the edges, some even call it a musical failure and I personally wouldn’t disagree too much on those terms, but I find it to have some of the most brutally sincere moments. Even the name seems to invoke the end one’s life, leaving this world for the next. Now there are skits with Beavis and Butthead littered throughout the album where it does get a little too full of itself, and honestly I cannot stand those moments, but overall, the album does becomes a bridge. Now using dark emotional moments and depression as elements in music is nothing new and I know that, but the way Cudi and a few others present it is a little different. His presentation is not just about exploring all the various struggles with depression and anxiety in general, but it’s specifically his struggles with depression and anxiety. He’s part of the presentation and that inherently requires a level of sincerity on his part.
One of the most difficult part of living with depression or anxiety is that there’s this unique isolation where you feel like no one else understands you. Sometimes you feel like a puzzle piece that fits nowhere, you almost feel as if there was some sort of mistake in nature which led to your creation. These are dark emotions, and being honest about them is impossible without experiencing some sort of embarrassment. Because by default, people don’t desire the broken, people want the shiny and new, the best of the best. Being sincere that you’re a broken person is like taking the mask off and waving the white flag of surrender that sends all the interested people home early who were initially buying your act. Some people go their whole lives without feeling a mutual understanding of the emotions they have deep down and there are so many moments on this album that speak to that.
Sincerity is also a cultural movement, sometimes called New Sincerity or post-postmodernism. Many point to the drastic tonal shift that our culture took in 2001, specifically on September 11th. If there was a time in our recent history when people began to look at the people around them and acknowledge the relation that they have with everyone, it was on 9/11. We’ve all had that one conversation, where were you on September 11th? This moment of pause that we all experienced woke us up from the irony of the 90s. It reminded us of our mortality, shared loss, and it acknowledged the emotional similarity that we all have between one another. That was the beginning of sincerity, it was the beginning of the bridge that began to be built to fill in the gaps between all of us.
Sincerity as an experience has to be achieved with a character or person and in this particular case, you cannot separate the music from the artist. Kid Cudi is a celebrity award-winning musician and has what appears to be the normal celebrity wealth, health, attractiveness, and so on. Those are some of the same things that many of us pursue in our individual pursuits of happiness, but seeing someone like Cudi, who already has them, be open and honest that he still experiences the same emptiness that we experience in private is profound. This is like discovering that the wizard of Oz is nothing more than a man behind a curtain.
This is the bridge, the way that Cudi makes the unfamiliar, familiar. By taking the objects we desire, the objects that we feel will bring us this satisfaction and happiness, and show us that they offer the same empty familiar feelings that we already know right now. As if there was someone telepathic speaks your own thoughts to you, giving you a way to describe the emotions you feel, but somehow lack the ability to describe by yourself. This feeling of unique isolation is broken the moment someone else says, I feel the same. As if we’re on the highway headed to find something and another traveler waves us down to tell us he’s already been there, and adding further that if we stay on this road, we wont find it, because he is also looking for the same. It makes you feel less alone, and that is what sincerity accomplishes. This sincerity makes us feel connected to others in a way we’ve never felt before.
By being open and honest about his struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts, Scott Mescudi is challenging the stereotype of the mentally ill by saying, “Look, I’m just like many of you, but I’m also dealing with this.” As a result, I’ve seen numerous responses pouring out ranging from support to people being open and honest about their personal struggles with mental illness. He’s also showing there’s very little difference between Kid Cudi the artist and Scott Mescudi the person. By doing that, he’s reaching through sincerity and offering himself as a living, breathing, vulnerable example someone who’s honest about their struggle to maintain their pursuit of happiness. Many of us also reach back because in a way, we feel the same.