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Charismatic, musically gifted, and wildly ambitious, Kid Cudi has all the trappings of a crossover star. But Cudder refuses to play that game. And consequently he wins at his own.
This feature appears in Complex's October/November 2011 issue.
Kid Cudi loves Walk Hard. So much. So much, in fact, that the 27-year-old musician says that he uses the slept-on Judd Apatow mock-rock biopic to chart his career trajectory. However, the fact that he’s wearing real-deal shit-kicking cowboy boots (!!!) at this very moment, seated in his Tribeca apartment (which looks like Tom Hanks’ loft in Big, reimagined by Nigo), is purely coincidental. But I digress. Back to Walk Hard. What makes this whole comparison to the rock-n-roll cliché kinda crazy is that young Cudder has done in three years what it took that flick’s Dewey Cox 25 years to do. Seriously. You know Cox’s story: rise from obscurity on the back of a signature hit, have a kid, go psychedelic, party out of control, get arrested, break up the band, get cleaned up.
Cudi did all that. Blew up off “Day N Nite,” made a psychedelic masterpiece with Man on the Moon, partied waaaaay out of control (check TMZ for the evidence), got arrested for kicking down a woman’s door with a jar of coke in his pocket, had a baby girl, quit the coke, fired his managers, and then quit the weed. In three years. If he were Dewey Cox, that would put him in the mid-’70s, hosting a TV show and struggling with sobriety-induced writer’s block. Hmm.
Ironically, that’s not too far from where Cudi finds himself. However, where Cox was at a washed-up crossroads of middle age (with only about 15 minutes left in the movie), Cudi is squarely in his prime and undeniably at his career’s zenith. He’s starring in the acclaimed HBO drama How to Make It in America and putting out a Shia LaBeouf written and directed short, Maniac, inspired by his song of the same name. Having picked up the guitar during his recovery, he’s working on his rock-themed side project, The Wizard (while struggling a little, he admits, with sober songwriting).
Cudi is going to have to find a whole new career trajectory to use as a benchmark, ’cause he’s entering uncharted territory. Complex caught up with Mr. Solo Dolo before he jumped to the other side of the pond to tour and discussed all of the above, plus why he hates doing features, how he’s his own best manager, and what he’s learned about love.
There’s no way to slow somebody when they’re speeding down a path of destruction.
So, that last interview you did with Complex was...explosive. [Laughs.]
Yeah, it was a doozy! [Laughs.] You know, I was clean then, but I still had, like, a drug hangover.
Is that drug hangover why you disappeared after you released your second album?
I wanted to clear my head, besides detox. I had to look at the root of the whole problem, and that was work and the business.
I wasn’t trying to hear it from nobody. I’m not even going to attack the people in my life that didn’t step in and try to stop it, ’cause I was just so bullheaded. There’s no way to slow somebody when they’re speeding down a path of destruction.
I thought I was dealing with it in the proper way. I was in the moment. And when you’re that young, with that opportunity, all that money, and all that respect and power, sometimes you run with it. ’Cause I was like, “Man, you don’t know if this shit’s gon’ be here tomorrow.”
You’d just put the record out. Was there pressure from the label or from management to keep going?
No. Even after the arrest I didn’t want to stop working. I owed it to my fans and my staff and the label, to finish what I started. I started an album, I need to finish it. Push it back, but it’s coming out. And that’s just me being the businessman, still wanting to deliver a product. I didn’t want to bitch and whine about it like, “Oh, man, I couldn’t finish this album because I was dealing with some things!” Fuck that.
I was living the album out as I was creating it. When I quit the drugs and was ready to wrap the album, I did three new records that I felt were the conclusion. It was going to end with “All Along,” which is just a very sad song to end an album. I came up with “Ghost,” then “Trapped in My Mind,” then “Don’t Play This Song.” Those records summed up my emotions.
I’m happy that I was able to squeeze out those joints. I don’t think I would have been as proud of the album if I'd ended it with “All Along.” That’s such a sad ending.
Being around Kanye was my escape. Seeing how he throws himself into the studio when he’s stressing about something, I totally admire that. Being around that was therapy for me.
As soon as the album was released you disappeared. What did you do?
Hung out with my mom a bit. Went out to L.A., cleared my head. I had a couple shows here and there, but I wasn't trying to tour.
I imagine you turned down an inordinate amount of money in those months.
Yeah. I turned down a lot of money, man. [Laughs.] Because this shit has never been about the money for me. It was the first time in my life where I took time for myself. I’m not a selfish person, but sometimes you’ve got to be selfish.
At the top of the year you seemed to be spending a lot time in New York with Kanye.
I was at another place, another dark place. Me and my girl had broken up. I wasn’t fully healed yet. And being around Kanye and music was my escape. He’s a sober guy, he has a drink every once in a while, but seeing how he throws himself into the studio when he’s stressing about something, I totally admire that. Being around that was therapy for me.
Are you back together with your lady?
Yeah, we’re solid. I’m just trying to figure out love. I never was really good at it, but when you have someone who loves you so much and can take your good and your bad, and work with you and help you grow—that’s priceless. To have a ride-or-die woman, for somebody that’s in the position I’m in, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.
Some of your other relationships changed during that time, too. You had a very public parting of ways with your managers.
I wanted to try something new, and I wanted to take control of things myself. Those are still my guys, Pat and Emile, and I'm still going to work with them in the future. When we start working on Man on the Moon III I’ll be calling them up to see if they want to be a part of it. I know Emile is definitely down.
We had an issue, but we’re men and we were able to figure it out and move forward. There’s no hard feelings.
Do you regret announcing it on Twitter?
Somewhat. But it gave me those calls that I’d been wanting, like, “Yeah, I’ve got your attention.” And I’m never one to put shit out there like that.
It seemed a bit out of character for you.
I have a ship and I want to keep that ship strong. The people who are a part of it, I want them to know that they’re a part of something stable. I want to go, musically and with the acting, and I just can’t slow up. I’m not going to sit here and stress about things that can’t be fixed. Or at least things that can’t be fixed right now.
You touched on this with regard to how fame warps the intentions of women, but it also applies to business. Now everyone wants a hand in your pocket, but your original team was down with you when you were the kid that worked at the BAPE store. How do you navigate that?
Easy: Don’t fuck with anyone! [Laughs.] I can manage myself, thank you.
So you’re managing yourself now?
I have been for a minute now. It’s fun!
You just have an assistant, a lawyer, an accountant, a publicist—
Yeah, and it’s easy ’cause I don’t live the life of a celebrity. My to-do list is limited to just two things: touring and studio. I record from home, so I don’t need to set up studio time. I book my own shows directly with my agent. I don’t do features with anyone, really. Other than Jay and Kanye, or if something cool comes along, like the Knux thing. And those are things that I’m really enthused about.
I'm not interested in being somebody's look. I don't like most people musically, so it's tough for me to be a part of people's projects.
So not a lot of features in your future?
I'm not interested in being someone’s look. And that’s what it is nowadays—a look. It’s hard for me to charge people, because I do my stuff for free. I do all my stuff with Jay and Kanye on the house, because it’s a brotherhood. Besides them, I can’t really hit nobody with a fee, because then that’s a dispute. What I want to charge, motherfuckers might not have a budget for!
On top of that, it’s a commitment when you do a song with somebody. Like, “We need a single, we need the video.” And then—like I said in the last interview, being that I don’t fuck with most people musically—it’s tough for me to want to bend and be a part of people’s projects.
Speaking of people you don’t fuck with musically, you coined that phrase in Complex last year talking about Wale, but now you guys have peaced it up and you’re doing a feature for him.
Wale is the homie, and I like the record he wants me to get on. This is my redemption for those comments last year. I definitely want people to see that we can create music together.
He’s been talking it up, too. He asked you about finishing up your part the other day—
I know he’s excited. I’m working on it. But I’ve got to do it at the proper time. I haven’t had time and he knows that. I’m happy to do this one, but I’ve been busy touring and working on my project.
Let’s talk about your number one commitment, the Wizard album. What made you want to take a break from the MOTM series to do something different?
After I got off the drugs I was like, I need a fucking hobby. I can’t be chillin’ in the house playing video games all the time. And I can’t be in the clubs, ’cause that led to the disaster. So what am I going to do? Why don’t I try to pick up an instrument?
I always wanted to play guitar. I tried it as a child and failed, tremendously. I tried to play the trumpet, the fucking clarinet, violin. Back then, when you tried that in school they would want you to read sheet music. It wasn’t about, “Can you play by ear?” I’m not one of those musicians.
So I picked up the guitar last fall and I started fiddling with it. It came kind of natural to me. I’m not saying that the first time around I was shredding riffs. But I was able to pick it up and pick, and go up and down the neck, and find melodies. I was like, “Shit, I want to just make jams with this instrument.” It was something that I took very seriously.
Does moving from Kid Cudi the rapper to Kid Cudi the musician change your songwriting?
It makes the songs more personal. I have a connection with each record because I’m creating the bed to put lyrics on.
Is this your first time creating music not under the influence?
What’s that like?
Stressful. But I love the challenge. It’s like a kid learning to ride a bike—you can’t have those training wheels forever. I have to learn how to be inspired by other things than my turmoil and pain and stress. I have to learn how to sit in the studio, clearheaded, and make a jam.
Have you had writer’s block?
At times. You sit there, and you’re like, “Fuck,” because you know there’s people waiting. You work through it, though.
Do you still go out?
Like, party a bit?
It was easy for me to quit smoking weed because I stopped liking the way it made me feel. I didn’t like being one foot in, one foot out of reality. I could be blitzed out of my skull and somebody might be plotting to snuff me in the club.
Well not “party,” but do you go drink or—
I can still sip my whiskey but I control my intake of liquor. I just don’t like the way it makes me feel [to be out-of-control drunk]. The reason it was so easy for me to quit smoking weed was because I stopped liking the way it made me feel. I didn’t like being one foot in, one foot out of reality. Especially in this business where you’ve got to watch the snakes in the grass. I could be blitzed out of my skull and somebody might be plotting to snuff me in the club. I really like being more alert.
I go out every once in a while. Not as much as I used to. Particularly in L.A., it’s tough because of the paparazzi. Even though it’s not going to happen, they’re waiting to see me fucking stumble out of a club again.
Speaking of L.A., much of your attention recently has been on acting.
I’ve always been interested in acting, but it didn’t seem as realistic of a goal for me. It’s awesome how it came about organically. It came out of nowhere, and it’s dope that my music career and How to Make It took off at the same time. I feel ridiculously blessed to have this opportunity to do this show.
Your music is a personal expression, but with acting you’re channeling someone else. How does that compare, in terms of creative satisfaction?
I get the same thrills with acting that I do when I’m on stage. When I’m on stage I’m like this maestro all throughout the night. I’m more animated than how I am in real life. The same with acting. It just comes off natural because it’s literally just me thinking about people I knew when I was coming up in New York that are like Domingo. He has all these different hustles. You see him at parties. You don’t know what he does but he’s with all these models. He has all this positive energy all the time. And I envy people like that because when you meet those people it’s like, “Man, does this person ever have a rough day?” [Laughs.]
Acting, guitar, bingeing, sobriety, breakups, shake-ups—you’ve come a long way since your first Complex cover two years ago. Where do you think you’re gonna be two years from now?
I wanna be taking it easy. I wanna be hanging out with my daughter. I’ve been working, working, working since I got in this business. My mom tells me I work too much, and she could be right. I just want to be able to take a break and raise my kid.
I’m always going to be working on something because I have too many ideas. Every day I come up with some wild fucking idea, some type of scheme. I feel like I have a purpose and if I don’t create then I’m letting myself down. I’ve been given this opportunity for people to listen to me worldwide. I’m just gonna fucking keep rocking and keep rocking and keep rocking until I’m in a wheelchair somewhere.
(PROP STYLING) Nanci Bennett. (PROP PHOTOGRAPHY) Cameron Priestley. (GROOMING) Cheri Keating/Wall Group. FIRST, FOURTH & SIXTH IMAGE: Jacket & Sweater by Dior Homme / Jeans by Balenciaga / Gloves & Cuff by Hermès / Watch by Rolex. SECOND IMAGE: Sweater by Louis Vuitton / Shirt by Surface to Air. THIRD, FIFTH & COVER IMAGE: T-Shirt by Dolce & Gabbana / Jeans by Balenciaga / Necklace by Ambush Design / Cuff by Hermès / Watch by Rolex.