Where does a musician go after spending an entire career outside the orbits of traditional hip-hop, R&B, pop, and rock? How does one keep the public guessing—or even interested? By continuing to go against the norm.
Love him or hate him, Scott Mescudi's always had a knack for that. At midnight on Monday night, he wrote another chapter in the Cudi chronicles, dropping his fifth album, Satellite Flight, virtually out of nowhere.
This latest twist in the artist's wide-ranging career continues to explore his thematic obsession with space across 10 tracks, four of them instrumentals and six adorned with lyrics. Falling in line with Cudi's musical DNA, the songs are singular creations that don't align with anything his contemporaries are up to. Which makes sense, because Cudi's always been interested in exploring what's beyond his sonic atmosphere. His fans already know Cudi’s penchant for finding whatever else is out there.
While Cudi's been busy doing junkets for his role in the upcoming action blockbuster Need For Speed, which opens on March 14, he's been tight-lipped about new music. Aside from a few Tweets, Cudi has remained mostly silent on the matter, until speaking with Complex last evening. Speaking from his home in L.A., he covered everything—the music, the movies, the life.
Among the personal particulars, Cudi revealed that he recorded most of Satellite Flight sober. He also spoke about his place in the music business, where he may have been wronged, and opened up about his role in G.O.O.D. Music. With solid sales predictions for the arbitrarily dropped album trickling in—early calls see the Wicked Awesome/Republic release selling over 90K in its first week—one thing remains clear: When Cudi makes noise, people listen.
Interview by Joe La Puma (@JLaPuma)
Beyoncé was the first major artist to drop an album online without warning. Now you’ve done the same thing with Satellite Flight and everybody’s like “you pulled a Beyoncé.” That’s what it’s labeled as now. When did you have the idea? Did she inspire it?
Well, first off, let me just say the world can learn a lot from Beyoncé. [Laughs.] The world can be a better place if we all just take a page from her book. So let’s just be clear on that. I think the industry is moving toward this point anyway. People have been talking about this for a while but it’s a gamble. Not everyone can do it. There are certain things that you need to have or it could fail miserably.
I was like, “Man, I’m tired of promoting and marketing an album. I just wanna give it.” This project isn’t something I was planning on doing. I just kinda did it, like, “Let’s see what happens if I do it this way.” It’s my fifth album. I was in concert in September. I had a couple songs. I had “Satellite Flight” and “Balmain Jeans” done at the time. I was just confident, and in the middle of the show I said, “I’m doing an EP and I won’t give any notice before it drops.” That was the only info I put out. I knew I was gonna do it around February—actually January was the target. I wanted to have it around my 30th birthday. Beyoncé’s album came out around December. If I’d had a time machine I would’ve known, but her stuff was a surprise to all.
At the same time, watching Beyoncé drop definitely gave me the confidence and let me know that it could be executed. Like, “Oh yes! someone was the guinea pig and it worked.” Perfect, now I can try. It’s a beautiful thing that it worked for me because I am not Beyoncé. Maybe in my wildest dreams on my prettiest day. [Laughs.] But I don’t have her legendary-ness, like her fucking amazing abilities and her fans and the millions of people that follow her. So to see that it was able to work for someone like me… who still considers himself an underground, indie artist, is dope. People like to throw around mainstream but I think I’m only mainstream because of my affiliations.
My music and tone is very experimental. It’s saying something that you can have a successful project just off of pure artistry—unfiltered—and be successful. That you can release an EP like this and still have support. Instead of just dropping it out of nowhere, the Kid Cudi twist to it was that I opened up this two-hour window for people to know it was coming. So when it did drop, I had a bunch of people just waiting, ready to click their mouse and hit buy at midnight. As oppose to just dropping it at midnight and people just finding out. Beyoncé can do that cause she’s so mega. I had to pull a different trick.
No matter what happens, this is more than I imagined. I just wanna take this time out to say everyone who supported me and who’s been there with me through thick and thin, when I was my most crazy, and never doubted: thank you so much. I’m so fucking happy and thankful to be alive. It’s hard to make people believers and I knew as long as I stay prolific and vigilant with mine, in time people will get it. And that time is now and that’s awesome.
How did you decide “I’m going to have four instrumentals on this album”?
What happens usually is I try a bunch of different options. It’s like a screenplay. When you’re working on a script there’s a lot of working and re-working, and that same thing happens with the songs. There were versions of the album that were shorter without instrumentals that went different ways with different songs, but I wasn’t feeling the flow. It’s all a bunch of different equations, and there’s multiple different answers but at the end of the day you have to just make a choice So, you know, it’s a lot of trial and error. Experimenting. That’s the fun part. I get a lot of joy from being able to have that freedom. It’s never too nerve-wracking either.
What do you say about people who wish you were rapping more as opposed to releasing instrumentals?
I don’t pay that any mind. I’m flattered that people want to hear the raps and that’s cool. But I feel like my first couple of albums—well. my first album and my mixtape—were more rap-driven. So it’s
I had a bunch of people just waiting, ready to click their mouse and hit buy at midnight. As oppose to just dropping it at midnight and people just finding out. Beyoncé can do that cause she’s so mega. I had to pull a different trick.
like the first impression in any relationship. Right in the beginning when you meet someone it’s like, “Wow,” and it’s new so I totally get it. But also I need kids to be aware that I’m not going to rap if I’m not inspired, unfortunately. That’s my weakness.
I have a bunch of powers but unfortunately I cannot write raps unless I’m ultimately fueled to write a rap, and it happens every so often. When it does happen it happens in the way of a “Too Bad I Have To Destroy You Now.” Where I’ve been waiting to unleash and I finally have and even though you haven’t heard many raps from me, it’s just enough to have you satisfied. Also, I aim for timeless. That’s always a goal.
A few weeks back you mentioned to me that you gave up alcohol while recording this album.
Yeah. Shortly before tour my doctor discovered that my liver was slightly enlarged from excessive drinking. It was another one of those wake-up calls. It was actually at the perfect time because I was getting ready to go on tour and I was telling myself, “Man, I don’t know if I can go another tour drinking after shows and partying on my off days and then having to do my shows and execute this shit to perfection. Something’s got to give.”
But as artists we want to have fun on tour so it doesn’t feel like work. So that’s why you have those moments when you have unwinding time. You have a drink or two but for me, I do things in excess. Even when you go back and think about my coke addiction—it wasn’t a little bit of coke. It was a lot of coke. There was no in-between. Same thing with booze. But at the same time, I was a functional alcoholic. You get caught up with the fact, like, “Aw man, I can do my work during the day and drink at night. That’s not an alcoholic. An alcoholic thinks about it all the time and wakes up drinking.”
So is that not true?
That’s not the case. I had it way wrong; a lot of people do. My addiction just had a very specific routine because I have responsibilities, too, and I’m in tune with my responsibilities. I made the choice to quit booze before I started tour, so the whole tour I was sober from alcohol and the whole show benefited from that—the energy and everything. I was the happiest I had ever been on tour. I got a lot from that whole experience.
During the tour I started working on Satellite Flight and even after. I just got into the creative process and it wasn’t until I finished the album—I’m talking about when it was mixed and mastered—when I was like, “Wow, I made this entire project without drinking.” Kids are so quick to be like “Cudi, do coke! Get back on drugs. Cudi can’t do this without this.” And I put out some of my best product in a long time and I did it completely without alcohol.
When me and Dot were making music in Brooklyn we weren't stoned all the time. We couldn’t afford it. We didn’t have booze. We couldn’t afford it. We did a lot of our music sober. A lot of those ideas came from my sober mind, whether it was “Pillow Talk” or “Highs and Lows.” Even “Day & Night,” which is a song that was born from me humming, I was at work and I was sitting there humming ideas into my Sidekick. I was at work completely sober. It reminded me of the power that comes from having a sober mind. The music benefits a great deal. It was something that I was surprised about.
What’s the status of your health issues now?
Just to update everyone, so no one’s worried, my liver is fine. I gave up the booze for so long and the problem was reversed and I’m A-ok. My doctor actually said I’m able to drink, but you know what? I went so long without it and I’ve accomplished so much, I feel good, I don’t need it.
Maybe one day I’ll have a glass when I’ve wrapped a certain project or it’s a friend’s birthday but I’ll never get back into the hardcore party lifestyle like before I quit. I can’t live that way. I’m getting too old for this shit. [Laughs.] We did it. We did it hard. Can’t nobody do it like we did it and I don’t have nothing else to prove. So that’s where we’re at with that.
Something you said on the UStream is that Hit-Boy inspired you to rap again. Is that true?
Yes. Because it all starts from the beat. When I find someone that I connect with on a creative, musical level, it’s a marriage, instantly. That’s exactly what you have seen with me and Dot Da Genius. I have been married in music to Dot for several, several years. We have continued to make great music together. I almost feel like I have a new connection like that with Hit-Boy, where there’s a musical understanding without having to say anything. Those are rare combinations because I’ve been in the studio with many people, some of the greats and it just didn’t connect.
I fucking lock with you if you have a good heart and you’ve got fucking ambition and you’ve got some integrity about you and you’re not some chump or some pushover and you got creative balls. If you’ve got those core things then I fuck with you.
Doing records with Hit-Boy, his energy, his innovativeness—he’s exciting, just as exciting as Dot is for me. Me and Hit don’t have the same history as me and Dot, but we’ve been hanging out. I’ve been spending a lot of time with the young man here and there in the studio. For him to be so young and have his head on straight like it is in such a way, it’s so awesome to see. I had to lock in with him. We have created some amazing work and it’s a testament. From “Red Eye” to this new joint I did with him and Audio Push called “Scorn” or whether it’s “Old School Caddy.” There is musical magic between me and Hit-Boy and we’re going to keep working at it and coming up with some jams to please the fans because we think we can change shit, so we all about that.
Nowadays more than ever we see the 808s and Heartbreak formula working well. It’s a lane that you’ve always had—even on your mixtapes—and obviously on this album too. How do you think your contribution influences the sound of music nowadays?
I think everybody has a little Cudi in their heart. I think that it’s safe to say. We know the work I’ve put in and the mark I’ve made in hip-hop and in pop culture overall. It’s kind of awesome to know that I created a wave that was big enough to shift things and inspire people. So it’s cool at the same time, but we all want to be acknowledged for hard work.
Everybody wants their credit where credit is due and there’s a lack of that and that’s where the problem lies because I’m damn sure not invisible. It’s never an issue, really. It’s kind of something you see and something we all know and it doesn’t make me bitter, but what I just don’t appreciate is the lack of honoring where the true inspiration comes from.
Where does the lack of honor come from? Is it the Internet, artists, critics? Where do you feel that comes from?
I just think because I’m not the artist to run around and say, “I did this! I did that!" anymore. I used to think I had to speak my mind and defend myself all the time and I’m just off that. I’ve matured in such a way that I just don’t take it there. So there isn’t anybody in particular. It’s just because of my lack of running around and being in the media and keeping to myself, it goes unnoticed is all.
People know, or at least I think people know. I don’t need to go down the list and name all the songs I’ve co-written. I don’t need to say these things. It’s understood. I don’t need to be the mad rapper. I’m very happy with my life, I’m very happy with my accomplishments right now. I’m in a great place. To be bitter is to go back to a place I just came from and I’m just not there. I’m not harboring any animosity or anger.
Do you think hip-hop is experimental enough in general?
I definitely think hip-hop is more experimental than it’s ever been, which is exciting. My whole issue with hip-hop is the subject matter. Like, “What are you niggas saying at the end of the day? What’re we buying here?”
It could be for entertainment, and that’s cool. It’s quick money. I’d rather see a lot of young black men making music than running the streets, shooting and killing each other. But the one thing you have to realize is that this is a gift. This is a power that we have. Why not use it to effect change? Why not use it to spread some more positive energy? I think we need to be more forward-thinking when we write our lyrics.
I’m not saying that everybody needs to be making Kid Cudi shit, because my shit is a very particular steez—true Scott Mescudi. I just feel like a lot of guys are saying a whole lot of nothing in fancy ways. They dress it up in such a way just to get your attention with a fancy beat and some weird enunciation in their voices. They do these weird things to make it exciting, but at the end of the day it’s all just a bunch of nothing.
It’s all just a bunch of niggas trying to be flashy and trying to be cool and it looks ridiculous. It sets us back as black people. It sets us back and it doesn’t help us out in any way, shape or form. We’ve been doing this for far too long. Hip-hop been the same old shit for far too long. Ain’t nobody tired of it yet? It’s all the same and these kids are running around thinking it’s cool and it’s a bummer. It’s a bummer because we’re smarter than that. As black people, as musicians, we’re smarter than that.
Do you still feel alone in the industry?
Yeah. I always felt dolo. I don’t have a posse. I’ve got my family of course. People know Dot, they know Dennis, they know Chip. I’ve always felt like a loner though and there’s power in that. It’s like, motherfuckers say you ain’t shit without your homeboys, but I’m the nigga that is shit without any homeboys. I am the shit without anyone. Always. All the time.
Kids are so quick to be like 'Cudi, do coke! Get back on drugs. Cudi can’t do this without this.' And I put out some of my best product in a long time and I did it completely without alcohol.
[Laughs.] As cocky as that sounds, it’s the truth. I’ve been relevant for all this time by myself. That shit’s been tough, that’s been very tough. I’ve got five albums. Five! I never thought I would have this many and one was just some random passion project that came out of nowhere. I’ve already fulfilled my four album commitment to my label.
I’ve been focused. So being alone has benefited me because I haven’t had people in my ear to rack my focus or people in my ear to fuck up my vision, fuck up my creativity, or throw me off balance. It’s been a very focused idea all these years but it’s something great that’s come from that so I’m not bitter. I thought I had friends, but you don’t in this business. So fuck it. It is what it is. At the end of the day this is a business and that’s how it’s going to be on a lot of levels for me here on out.
Do you feel like you got burned in business?
Yeah, man. Not in a shady way as far as people taking my money; my lawyer, Michael Guido, is fucking amazing, so there’s no problems on that front, but yeah. For sure, man, I definitely felt like people were saying they were friends and weren’t friends. It’s a shock when you have that revelation like, “Oh, wow. This person didn’t give a shit about me.”
You don’t dwell. It’s kind of just like, “OK. Back to the regularly scheduled program. Where was I? Oh yeah. Doing me. Back to my shit. Back to my family. Back to my mom. Back to my daughter. Back to my sister. Back to my brothers. Back to my nieces. Back to my fans. Back to what counts. Back to what matters. Nothing else matters.” I’m not searching for nothing. I don’t need nothing so you know, I’m good.
You did appear on Yeezus on the song “Guilt Trip.” A lot of fans were excited to see you featured—although it was just the outro. What's the story behind that collaboration?
The vocal that I did on that song was a couple years old. I forgot which session it was, but it was just a reference. I discovered that I was on the song via Twitter. I saw kids hitting me up, like, “Are you on ‘Guilt Trip!?’ or saying “Great job!” and I’m like, “What the fuck is everyone talking about?” So I go on Twitter and then I hear the song and I’m like, “OK. I know the beat. I know the song.” Then I’m like, “Oh man, OK.” Part of me was flattered, like, it’s kind of cool that he thought of me.
Then I started thinking about it more. It was like, Why not call me and have me come in there and give it? Why underuse me? Why put four bars of vocals to coax my fans into thinking this is a legitimate Kid Cudi feature on this song and it isn’t? Same deal with the G.O.O.D. Music album, the compilation. Had I not given Kanye “Creepers” my only presence would’ve been on that one song, that I can’t even remember the title for. [“The Morning” —Ed.] I would’ve barely been on that album.
It was basically just a background vocal...
It’s weird. I don’t know how to feel but I would’ve much rather been off that song. I don’t care to be on people’s songs like that. Unless it came from a legitimate session where we’re all vibing and have an idea.
Now that you’re on your own label, the chances of that happening again are slim.
Yeah, it’s a beautiful thing to be in control. I’ve had my ups and downs with Universal Republic but they’re working on trying to renegotiate my contract and submitting something to me. You know, to keep me on the label because they believe in what I’m doing.
According to early predictions, the album's sales seem solid. How do you maintain such a strong connection with your fans without being super visible?
It goes back to exactly what we were talking about. I write with a purpose. There’s always a plan. I’ve always wanted to help people, it’s very very clear in each and every one of my projects. It’s not a gimmick. I said that in my mixtape trailer. I said that. That wasn’t by accident. I’m indecisive and fickle when it comes to things creatively. But my mission has always been what it was. That’s why I can drop an album out of thin air and people will show up because they know it’s from my heart. They know this shit is not a game.
They know I put in work, that I care about them and I wanna help them because in turn they’re helping me. Know what I mean? It’s not like, I put out the music and you bow before me. No. We are all equal. I can’t survive unless you understand me. And I’m not talking about survive financially. I’m talking about, I wrote music to see who felt like me so I didn’t feel alone. All these kids at the shows make me wanna live. On top of my daughter, on top of my mother, my family. They’re a big part of me wanting to stay on this planet. That’s why they show up because they know that. They know I went through hell and I survived in order to inspire so nobody else could fall. If I fail, millions of other kids will fail. I cannot fail. I cannot fail.
Let's talk about “Too Bad I Have To Destroy You Now.” Seems like there's some angst behind it. Where did the inspiration come from?
Well, I wrote that verse about two years ago, three years ago. And it’s interesting, I was in a whole other place then. A much darker place. But you can tell in the lyrics I was on my way to understanding where I needed to be. I was starting to grow and mature there. There were little inklings of little hints there. That song was definitely that. I was on my way to climbing out the darkness and that verse kind of proves it.
That was around the time of the GQ shoot. Is that why you make reference to the mustache?
Yeah, [Laughs.] The GQ mustache. Because that was the only time I could remember me sincerely committing to a mustache.
Are the people from Balmain psyched over "Balmain Jeans"? Have you heard anything from them?
Nah, but I didn’t do it for Balmain. I’m a mastermind, but not like that [Laughs.] If that was the case I would’ve tried to meet with them already, and they would’ve heard the song before anybody. I would’ve had a video shot and I would’ve had some custom Balmain jeans. But to be honest I gave it that title to throw people off. I hate that people try to read my titles and think they know what’s going on. The song could’ve easily been “Keep Feeling On Me,” easily. Or “Electrify My Body” or whatever. It could’ve been totally literal, but I like the fact that it’s a flip. Ultimately the song is about, I’m having this electric experience with someone for the first time in a long time and I forgot that I could have this with someone. So it’s my way of just playing with things and throwing people off a little bit.
How different is doing Need For Speed press than music press? Is it easier?
It’s actually more fun because you’re in there with people that love movies. You know? They’re sitting there enjoying the fact that they can be there in front of the stars and meeting them and talking to them. In music you’re liable to have six out of 10 reporters who are fans, and the others are just there because their boss told them to. So their questions are coming from a half-hearted place.
I’ve been relevant for all this time by myself. That shit’s been tough, that’s been very tough. I’ve got five albums. Five! I never thought I would have this many and one was just some random passion project that came out of nowhere.
Thus far the Need For Speed press run has been fun. I’m getting used to people telling me I’m funny, that I’m making them laugh. To me, that’s the best part. I talked to this one guy and I was like, “Man, its funny. People have this idea of me that I just sit around all day with this scowl on my face like I’m sad, angry, and bitter. And that’s because if you think about it, my first impression to the world is what most people don’t see when you meet someone; their dark side. I introduced my dark side to the world before I introduced my light side. And my light side is pretty much 80% of my life. So when I’m doing movies and people are seeing me be happy and be funny they’re like, “Wow, this is more refreshing.”
But this is me all the time. You guys just didn’t know that because my music is just deep, and from the dark corners of my psyche. And that’s what I choose to write, that’s what I choose to put out musically. As artists that is our profile, that is what people consume as us. Know what I mean? And that’s why I’m trying to—even with Indicud—I’m trying to make it more fun because Man On The Moon II just left such a dark cloak on my name. I needed to show people that moment in my life doesn’t define me. I needed to show the world that I wasn’t a failure, and that I wasn’t a loser. I’m a survivor and I won’t stop shining.
Totally. Something that made the rounds around the Internet very quickly was a photo of you in the studio with Bieber. Did you get any work done with him or no?
Oh no no no. That’s a big misunderstanding. OK, here’s the deal. [Laughs.] I was in the studio one late night, working on the mix and unfortunately I was trying to get the normal studio I go to but they were booked up. The only studio available was this one studio that’s like a fucking playground for every Top 40 artist in the world. And I hate going there because when you go there you just run into everybody and people just wanna walk in your session. So I’ve been dodging this place for years but this one night I had no choice.
I had to go there because I had to work on this mix and add some vocals. Because I think at this point I was coming with more songs and I just had the idea for “Internal Bleeding.” So I’m in the studio, it’s late—it’s like maybe one in the morning. I’m sitting there and my head’s down and I’m kinda like vibing to the music and I feel somebody touch my shoulder. I look up and it’s Justin. In there, in the studio, just there. I said what’s up. It was actually the first time that we’ve had a real encounter. I mean I’ve seen him here and there, I’ve seen him around Jaden [Smith] but he’s never been in my space.
He found out I was in there and wanted to say what’s up. So it was all cool. I let him sit there. We were hanging out and he wanted to hear a new song, wanted to hear some new shit. I played him Satellite Flight. He was into it. Then he played me a couple of his jams and that was it. [Laughs.] There’s no song. He asked to take a photo before he left. A picture for Instagram, and I was like, “Sure.” But it was definitely like he just kinda popped up, wanted to hear some jams, talked to him for a little bit and that was it. Sorry guys, there’s no Justin Bieber song and I don’t think there ever will be. No offense to his art or anything like that, but I like to only work with artists around my age. That makes more sense to me. I’m 30. I’m not a little older than him; I’m a lot older than him. That’s why if it was to work, it would be on the production side but I think he’s all squared away.
SXSW is coming up, and almost exactly five years ago, I remember talking to you about your first performance there. Your journey has had so many ups and downs. Are you sentimental about that stuff?
Yeah, you know what I think about a lot? I think about all the times in New York with [Plain] Pat. Just walking in the city, him waiting for me to get off of work, [and] BAPE. I think about going to work a lot, clocking in. I think about going on my lunch break. Not being able to eat lunch because I didn’t have no money. Bumming cigarettes from people walking by me on the street. I think about sleeping on people’s couches and not being bummed out about it because I knew I was on a quest and I knew God was testing me. I didn’t mind it at all. I think about a lot of those moments, man. I don’t think about the darkness much because the darkness doesn’t benefit my future. But in order to start over, I had to go back and think about a lot of moments where it all began. Where I was Scott, I was Scott. But this industry made me crazy, corrupted my mind a bit. That helped to create this project to get my sound back, to get my subject matter back, to get my confidence as an artist and just discover who I am. And get my mind on the right track, the right track to inner peace and happiness
Your Twitter description changed from “the originator of the drunk tweet” to just “the originator.” When did that happen?
That happened when I gave up booze. It was a number of things that lead to me being like, “I’m tired of being known as this guy. I’m tired of people thinking I’m just this drug addict, alcoholic dude that can’t control himself.” It just out of control. Now don’t get it twisted, people know I don’t play no games. That’s still in me. I don't need no drug to have that, that’s my DNA. But at the same time, what matters is that I am the original. I am the first Scott Mescudi to do what Scott Mescudi is doing. And that’s what I mean by I am the originator. Because at the end of the day, there’s a little Cudi in everyone. People don’t like to admit it. People like to ignore me. People like to act like I don’t exist and that is fine but I know and they know and the world knows what time it is. I’m alive and well.