Revisiting . . . Kid Cudi’s ‘A Kid Named Cudi’ Mixtape (2008)
For the first installment of our “Revisiting …” series we flashback to 2008 when Cleveland, Ohio rapper/singer Kid Cudi changed hip-hop in July of that year, with the release of his debut mixtape ‘A Kid Named Cudi.’ — Aaron Matthews
Think back to the summer of ‘A Kid Named Cudi’s’ release: hip-hop was in a transitive state, dominated by genre titans either on the wane or approaching a peak they would never reach again. Kanye West won 2007′s album release day competition between himself and 50 Cent and continued to dominate the conversation through star cameos on Young Jeezy’s ‘Put On’ and Lil Wayne’s ‘Lollipop’ remix. Rick Ross, Jeezy, Wayne and T.I. ruled the genre for 2008 with big albums and big singles. The little homey Nas gave controversy his best shot with ‘Untitled’s’ pundit-baiting cover and lyrics. Major labels took few chances with new artists; the music industry was ready for a changing of the guard.
2008 also marked a transition of power in the business of rap music, as digital age supplanted physical media and the old ways of discovering music, breaking artists and developing fan bases. Social media sites like MySpace and blogs such as NahRight and 2DopeBoyz began to demonstrate influence by connecting up-and-comers and showcasing new artists who would’ve otherwise gone ignored. Rappers like Mickey Factz, B.o.B., Wale, Curren$y and Kid Cudi built dedicated followings by releasing free mixtapes online, consisting largely of original music. Kid Cudi burst onto the scene with his debut single ‘Day ‘N’ Nite,’ released in Feb 2008 by Fool’s Gold Records. The record built a buzz in the underground before peaking at No. 3 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. Cudi signed with the then dance-focused label in early 2007. Cudi would tour with electronic music DJs alongside label co-owner and Kanye West tour DJ A-Trak and posed for the catalog of influential streetwear brand 10.Deep. These connections primed the pump for the release of his debut mixtape ‘A Kid Named Cudi.’
Produced by longtime Kanye West collaborator and A&R Plain Pat and super-producer-in-the-making Emile (Eminem, Lana Del Ray, Cormega), and presented by 10.Deep, the 17-track mixtape mixed original songs with Cudi’s takes on other artists’ music. On AKNC, Cudi raps and croons over samples and interpolations of Gnarls Barkley, Paul Simon, A Band of Horses, J Dilla, Nosaj Thing, N.E.R.D. and Outkast. He melded indie rock, electronica and dubstep seamlessly with hip-hop without pandering or reaching. Before Drake broke through with 2009′s ‘So Far Gone,’ rapping and singing over Swedish indie poppers Lykke Li and Peter Bjorn and John, Cudi tweaked with multi-genre covers and seamless transitions between singing and rapping. He had a versatile flow to showcase over raucous J Dilla (‘Cudi Get’) and Neptunes beats (‘CuDi Spazzin’) but favored simple and relatable lyrics over alienating showboating.
‘Man On The Moon (The Anthem)’ lives up to its name, outlining Cudi’s mission statement through meditations on cannabis sativa, loneliness and individualism. Cudi could match wits with fellow up-and-comer Wale on ‘Is There Any Love?,’ kick love raps and sing his own hook over Outkast’s ‘Pink and Blue’ and reflect on the fickle music industry while flipping Paul Simon’s ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ into his own 50 Ways To Make a Record’. He was clever, funny and nimble, remaining just weird enough to be different without exaggerating for effect.
Despite Cudi’s lighthearted chest-thumping on ‘AKNC,’ the mixtape (along with the work of rapper-ternt-sanga T-Pain) helped lay the groundwork for a sub-genre of hip-hop that writer Jeff Weiss termed “sad robot music.” That is Auto-Tuned hip-hop/R&B delivered over moody, EDM-influenced beats; think Kanye on ’808s & Heartbreak,’ Drake and Future.
Cudi’s honesty and unapologetic vulnerability influenced Kanye’s own explorations of his conscience on record, which consequently influenced Drake and Future’s own forays into the aforementioned “sad robot music.” This side came through on ‘AKNC ‘highlights like ‘Save My Soul (The Cudi Confession)’, a confessional delivered through Gnarls Barkley, and ‘The Prayer’, a songwriter’s will sampling and interpolating Band of Horses’ ‘The Funeral’. Shortly after ‘AKNC’s’ release, Plain Pat introduced Cudi to Kanye, who signed him to his imprint GOOD Music; this released Cudi from his previous contract with Fool’s Gold Records. Kanye recruits Cudi to write four songs on 808s & Heartbreak, including big singles ‘Heartless’ and ‘Paranoid’. XXL Magazine also began running its top 10 Freshmen list in 2008, picking 10 rappers they suspected would be the next thing. Though the first list largely featured artists who’d been kicking around regional scenes for ages (Lil Boosie, Papoose, Saigon), 2009 brought a new generation of artists who rode the blog wave to stardom. XXL’s 2009 Freshmen list reflected this new sensibility, featuring Kid Cudi alongside peers like B.o.B., Wale and Curren$y; this press, coupled with big name cosigns helped push some of these rappers to genuine stardom.
On the side of business, AKNC popularized the trend of streetwear brands functioning as labels for independent artists. The appeal is clear: The brand gains street cred plus co-branding opportunities if the artist takes off. The artist grabs the ear of trendy rap fans through the brand’s PR department and hosting for their free mixtapes. 10.Deep also released Wale’s critically beloved breakout ‘The Mixtape About Nothing’ in May, while streetwear brand LRG sponsored B.o.B.’s ‘Hi! My Name Is B.o.B.’ These tapes functioned as “street albums” and established each rapper’s ability to deliver a full length artistic statement. This trend has continued with other streetwear labels including L.A.’s Diamond Supply and NY’s Мишка; the latter in particular has broken acts like Das Racist, Main Attrakionz and Mr. Muthaf–kin Exquire. This trend set the stage for a different relationship between fashion and rap; rappers had modeled for hip-hop friendly brands in the past, even released their own clothing lines but partnering for a clothing/music co-release was new. The tape was promoted with the simultaneous limited release of an exclusive 10.Deep X Kid Cudi “Up There” t-shirt, inspired by AKNC’s song ‘Man On The Moon (The Anthem)’. The limited availability of the tangible product, paired with a free copy of the AKNC mixtape, is an inspired business choice in an industry where music has similarly limited appeal as a physical object.
Through its sample choices, ‘AKNC’ also predicted the rise of mainstream rap dipping into the fertile soil of underground electronic scenes for beats. Cudi sampled Low End Theory staple Nosaj Thing for ‘Man On The Moon (The Anthem)’ and Turned-On Bach rockers Ratatat on ‘Heaven At Nite’. Before Kanye tapped electronic music beatmaker Hudson Mohawke for ‘Mercy’ and Yeezus, the Scottish producer ran in the same circles as Nosaj Thing. ‘AKNC’ also anticipated the rise of dubstep as a commercial concern and the current glut of EDM-inflected pop, rap and R&B. Cudi’s breakout hit ‘Day ‘N’ Nite’, produced by frequent collaborator Dot Da Genius, sampled British dubstep pioneer Benga’s 2007 track ‘Night’ (produced with Coki). ‘Night’ itself was a breakout hit for dubstep, a genre that pre-Skrillex and Deadmau5, was still emerging as a commercially viable genre outside of the United Kingdom. In 2007, Kanye sampled Daft Punk for ‘Graduation’s’ hit single ‘Stronger’ and implemented rock and synthetic textures into his production. He drew on Euro-disco, indie rock and his own Chicago house. Cudi expanded on it further, abetted by the freedom to sample whatever he wanted for a free release; ‘Day ‘n’ Nite’ is the only song that survived to Kid Cudi’s 2009 debut release ‘Man on the Moon: The End of Day,’ an intensely hooky, yet melancholy chronicle of a lonely pot smoker.
Cudi employed Italian house production team Crookers for ‘Embrace The Martian’ and spit over EDM-influenced beats on ‘Cleveland Is The Reason’ and ‘TGIF’). ‘Day ‘N’ Nite’ itself was given a danceable remix by Crookers for a single release in 2009, placing No. 2 on the UK Singles Chart. Cudi himself would go on to collaborate with EDM producers Steve Aoki and David Guetta but in 2008 these electronic/rap crossgenre collaborations were rare on a mainstream level. Cudi having set the trend, Black Eyed Peas dropped the ‘I Gotta Feeling’ in May 2009, produced by French house DJ David Guetta; the music video is a tip of the hat, with Cudi and Guetta dancing together in the video. Flo Rida, Usher, Nicki Minaj and others would soon channel the house/electro sound for big hits.
In 2013, Cudi is one of the few XXL Freshmen with an actual career, a dedicated fanbase and a major label contract. His eclectic flirtations with EDM and indie rock, lyrical honesty and clever branding predicted the dominant musical trends of the early 2010s, particularly within hip-hop, pop and R&B. ‘AKNC’ remains a listenable, cohesive project and a favorite amongst Cudi lifers, but its impact on the hip-hop genre will continue to reverberate long after the lonely stoner retires.