Listening to new Kid Cudi albums has lately become an exercise in lowering expectations. His last album that was truly enjoyable from start to finish was 2013’s Indicud. Since then, he’s released projects that have ranged from meh (Satellite Flight: The Journey to Mother Moon), to yikes (Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven). A longtime Kid Cudi fan will still find redeemable moments buried in these projects, but it’s become increasingly difficult to defend them as a whole.
Thankfully, on Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’, Cudi manages to find his sound again. In a year that saw him deal very publicly with personal demons, delivering an album that finally recaptures some of the excitement and magic of his music feels like a fitting, victorious end.
This new album works because Kid Cudi is rapping again, something he hasn’t done at length since 2013. Rap-heavy songs like “Does It” and “Baptized in Fire,” with Travis Scott, stand out immediately, and allow Cudi to deliver his emotionally-charged thoughts in a way that feels not just coherent, but cutting.
“The more I grow, the more I double in powers/Non-ambition’s for cowards, trippy toe for toe/Won't be a drone clone, half-hearted/Sheep in the heard, brainwashed to low cause/I’ma raise hell, you know this/And if I piss people off along the way, bonus” he raps on “Does It,” dismissing much of hip-hop as a retread of the same ideas. The song snaps with help from producers Mike Dean and Plain Pat, who played a bigger role in Cudi’s initial success than he’s been willing to admit recently, and return to elevate his art in 2016.
Of course this is still a Kid Cudi album, and all the bars are mixed in with a healthy dose of his singing, humming, and moaning. These are all much-loved features of Cudi’s music, and yet we’ve seen in the past that too much of them can make his work feel hollow. On Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ he manages to strike the right balance more often than not. “Kitchen” is a great example, with Cudi’s echoey hook of “Punch drunk love annoyed” anchoring the song. Early singles “All In” and “The Frequency” are also heavy on warbling, but deliver on the lyrics.
The album’s crowning achievements come with a pair of collaborations; he links up with Andre 3000 on “By Design” and Willow Smith on “Rose Golden.” Both songs are fantastic. “By Design,” in particular, shines, with Cudi and Andre rapping and singing over successful steel drum instrumentation. “Rose Golden” feels like it should be played around a campfire, casting Willow and Cudi as misunderstood cosmic chosen ones. Another standout is “ILLusions,” which could fit comfortably at the quiet, self-reflective end of Man on the Moon II. These moments show Cudi at the top of his game, and can stand amongst the top songs in his catalog.
Of course, Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ is far from perfect. At 19 tracks the album drags, especially towards the end. Tracks like “Releaser” feel too aimless, never really getting anywhere despite being stretched out over more than five minutes. Cudi is known for lengthy albums, but there’s not enough variety here to support the heft. The project wouldn’t have lost much by cutting repetitive tracks like “Swim in the Light” or “Mature Nature,” which mostly consist of a small set of repeated phrases turned into five-minute songs.
One thing longtime fans noticed right away was Cudi’s return to the five-act structure that defined his Man on the Moon albums. Unlike those albums though, the decision mostly seems like fan service here. Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ doesn’t feel so much like a carefully-delineated journey as it does an expansive look at Cudi’s current state of being. That’s not a knock per se, just a note that the act breakdown seems much less necessary here than on past work.
It’s difficult to be too hard on Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’, mostly because it’s the first time in many years that a Kid Cudi album has been markedly better than the one that came before it. Cudi is still a unique voice in hip-hop whose influence on the genre is understated, but for years his albums have felt increasingly lost in the chasms of his own mind. With this project he’s finally managed to recapture the heart of his music, mixing confessional raps with cosmic hums and unique production. It’s not perfect, but it finally feels like we have the Cudi we fell in love with when we first heard him. For that fact alone, it deserves your attention.