Scott Mescudi grins like a person who knows that his next smile isn't promised. His often arched eyebrows slowly dissolve, and the corners of his mouth extend to the edges of his face as if there is a new freedom waiting to be discovered there. At that point, Kid Cudi, as he’s better known, is mostly teeth. Once that smile arrives, it lingers. Cudi’s smile fights to exist, and it fights to stay.
Cudi, 34, is oscillating between delightedly at ease and on the edge of excitement when we meet in Los Angeles at the Chateau Marmont hotel. It’s a Wednesday afternoon, in the midst of a vicious heat wave that’s weighing heavily on the city. He lounges in a hotel room chair in bright yellow shorts and an old Beavis and Butt-Head T-shirt but jumps in close, with a spark in his eye, when answering questions. The Chateau Marmont was built in 1929 to be earthquake-proof and survived massive ones in 1933, 1953, 1971, 1987 and 1994. It is fitting to meet this artist here -- not because so many celebrity interviews happen in the building, but because it is a place that has endured even as the earth has moved beneath it.
We are not too far removed from fall 2016, when Cudi logged on to Facebook, typed a long message to his fans and then logged off. In the message, he detailed his struggles with anxiety, depression and “suicidal urges,” and how those struggles pushed him to enter rehab. He insisted he wasn't at peace and hadn't been since he began making music. He had been living a lie and wanted to get closer to the truth.
The culmination of Cudi inching closer to that truth is Kids See Ghosts, his new joint project with his mentor and friend Kanye West, with whom he has had a turbulent but fruitful relationship. The two traded swipes at each other in September 2016: Cudi on Twitter over West’s use of songwriters, and West during an in-concert rant on his Saint Pablo Tour. But the feud was quickly washed away in the same month, when West declared Cudi “the most influential artist of the past 10 years” (thinking, no doubt, of Cudi’s pioneering introspection and use of melody). Cudi, fresh out of rehab, joined West onstage in November 2016.
The core of their relationship, it seems, has always been a desire to push each other creatively. In the June run of G.O.O.D. Music releases -- seven-song albums by Pusha T, Nas, Teyana Taylor and West solo -- Kids See Ghosts, Cudi’s first album since 2016’s Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’, is the one with the most emotional resonance. (It also outperformed all the other G.O.O.D. releases but West’s in its first week, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and moving 142,000 units, according to Nielsen Music.) For all the debate about what West has left to offer the cultural and musical conversation, it should not be lost that Kids See Ghosts is a reawakening for Cudi -- a contributor who makes every sound richer, more layered. West offers the palette of primary colors, and Cudi stretches them across the spectrum. His honesty bursts from the edges of the songs, like when he opens the album shouting, “I CAN STILL FEEL THE LOVE,” and it echoes, a mantra to both speaker and listener.
Sitting in this unshakable hotel with sunlight moving across the table, Cudi mostly wants to talk about joy. Not as if he’s trying to convince me or sell me on his joy, but like he has made a long journey along a river, finally saw his reflection in the water for the first time and wants to tell me all about it. He beams when circling back repeatedly to his 8-year-old daughter, Vada Mescudi. “Make sure this is good,” he tells me early in the interview. “I want my daughter to read it.” When we pause so that he can quickly eat half of a burger drowned in ketchup, I tell him about the kids in Ohio, where we are both from, who listen to his music and feel more alive. Kids who are doing better because he’s doing better. He pauses before biting into his burger, stares at the light along the table and exclaims, “Word?,” as if the thought had never occurred to him before. He has long departed from his hometown of Cleveland and now resides in Los Angeles. He mentions how the seasons don’t really change, current heat notwithstanding. Gone are the wild swings of Ohio weather, replaced with a consistent calm. Cudi himself has withstood what seems to be the most unpredictable period in his life, and what washes over him now is a palpable sense of serenity. I wonder out loud if the lack of seasonal change takes some getting used to. It does, he tells me. It does.
What are you doing these days to keep your head right and your energy right?
I’m just creating a lot, with more love in my heart for what I’m doing and for myself. Living a healthy life, keeping my family around and staying on a mission, which is making music that means something. I’m focusing on my art again and throwing myself back into it and wanting to write something with more of a positive outlook on things, because I’ve written the dark so well for so long. I wanted to bring the opposite of that, you know? I’m at a place where I was able to do that. It took me so long to get to that place, and I was really excited to write from that standpoint when I got there. Passion, Pain was more positive, but I wasn't necessarily living when I was writing it. Because I wrote that album before I went to rehab, then I came out and released it, I never really got a chance to write post-rehab, show the world where I’m at right now. That’s what Kids See Ghosts was: to update the world on where I’m at.
The joy you get working with Kanye has always shone through in your collaborative efforts, no matter what the project has looked like, but you’ve also seen each other through some tension. How have you felt fed by that partnership throughout your career, and do you feel like it’s still progressing?
Oh, man. I think me and Kanye are always going to make awesome shit together. We just have this chemistry that’s undeniable, especially when we have to fight for it with each other. It’s really easy for us. Kids See Ghosts did take us a little over a year-and-a-half to just get it tight and where we wanted it to be, but the actual songwriting process and putting the songs together wasn't really hard. Me and Ye, we click like that musically. But -- I was just talking about this with Jaden [Smith] today -- it was still the pressure of going toe-to-toe, line for line with Ye, and that was heavy for me. At first, when he mentioned he wanted to do the album, I didn't know how serious he was. But I was real serious about it. Months went by, and we just kept working on it and chiseling away at it. It was funny to us when people were talking about how the album was rushed or last-minute. I knew what it took. I was there the whole time.
If nothing else, I’m fascinated by how difficult some of those samples had to be cleared, and how that seemed to add a new layer of rigor to the finished product. The Louis Prima sample in “4th Dimension” --
And the “Cudi Montage” sample! That [sample of Kurt Cobain’s posthumous song “Burn the Rain”] is the one I was the most worried about, but Courtney Love and Frances [Bean Cobain] were really cool and they cleared it, and I love them both for that. Courtney told me, “I don’t clear shit for just anybody,” and I was like, “I know, I know,” and I was so thankful. Those songs took some real time and real work.
Your aim was to take a different approach with every project. I’m interested in the ways you cultivate that fearlessness.
I have no fear, because I’ve been given a gift. I’m blessed. Every album is like I’ve been given a grant for some art school to make something. Anything I want. That’s my dream. I approach every fucking album like an art project, like I’m doing this for school or something, to get a grade. [But] it’s really just for my fans, because I know that they get off on that shit. They like when I try new stuff. That’s what it has always been about. All my albums have explored so many different sounds from day one. Sonically, we’ve always been, or tried to be, a step ahead of everything that’s out there.
How do you manage the things you do fear?
I don’t live in fear like that. I’m just not that type of individual. I moved away from home at a very young age. A lot of motherfuckers never leave home, get the fucking strength to pack up their shit and head out to the unknown. That’s why I like to say I’m the chosen. It’s kind of like a funny thing, but I [do] feel like I’ve been chosen. When I look back at my journey, it’s like everything happened for a reason. Everything from working at Abercrombie & Fitch to meeting friends who introduced me to Dot [Da Genius, Cudi’s longtime producer], then me and Dot creating [Cudi’s breakthrough] “Day ’N’ Nite,” me meeting Plain Pat and begging him to manage me, him finally saying OK, and us then having a mixtape [2008’s A Kid Named Cudi] and just doing this together. It was my destiny.
Have your darker moments also been a part of your destiny?
Yeah. I was chosen to endure those, too. And I’ll have to explain my darker moments again to my daughter one day. She’ll want to know, and I’ll have to explain, but she’ll understand. She ain’t going to judge me or nothing. It’d be different if she was living some crazy, messed-up life and shit, but like, no. She’s straight. She’s a happy little girl, and I’ll want her to know all of who I am.
What was it like finishing Kids See Ghosts out in Wyoming? What were your favorite parts of the process?
It was like camp, like a super camp where all the fucking creatives go to create. We ate together. We laughed together. Chilled. It was really cool to be around Nas. That was the illest. We’d be chilling in the room, and then Nas would leave and we’d be like, “That’s fucking Nas.” We’d be asking him questions about coming up in Queens, did he know Biggie, all these questions. I had a ball out there, man. Kanye had his family around. He had his dad there. And we knew what songs we wanted to use. We had “Reborn.” We had “4th Dimension.” We just took our time fine-tuning the process.
Was the album always intended to be seven songs?
It was always seven. There are some songs that we didn't use that I’m hopeful we can put out later. But the plan is to do more Kids See Ghosts albums.
You’re talking about figuring out how to write into the light, and “Reborn” feels like a song where you specifically figure that out. It sounds like the answer to a lot of questions you were asking in your past work.
Yeah, it’s supposed to sound like a continuation. Where are we at now? Where does it go from here? Because I don’t think people got that record from me. It hasn't been said that I’m good, that I’m OK. On Passion, Pain, I never let the world know that I’m good, because I wasn't good yet. I was thinking, how can I let the world know? It was great when Kanye wanted to use [the song], because it was perfect for both -- we are both reborn after what we went through. I couldn't have made a song like “Reborn” until now, because I didn't feel reborn yet.
When you put up the Facebook post detailing your struggles, were you aware of the response it got, or did you just walk away after putting it up?
I put it up, and I walked away. A couple of hours later, I saw that it was all over the news. Then I got really scared. I didn't read any articles about it at first. I didn't know how people were responding. I was asking Dennis [Cummings, his current manager] what the response was, and then I checked it [myself] a couple of days later and saw that the response was all love and support, and it really touched me. I was in a really bad place, and at the time, I felt like I was letting a lot of people down. It was really hard for me to even write that letter, but I needed to be honest with the kids. I needed to. I couldn't live a lie. I couldn't pretend to be happy.
Has the fight gotten easier, or have you found enough joy to eclipse the idea that you’re fighting at all?
I have so much joy that I don’t feel like I’m fighting anymore.
How and when did you come to the realization that you’re good, or whatever “good” meant for you?
It was this year, around my birthday [in late January]. I’m the best I’ve ever been in my life. I realized I was genuinely happy, and there’s nothing really going on in particular. Just being 34, to be still doing what I love. Taking care of my responsibilities, and my daughter’s good and my family’s good. Creating is making me happy again. I’ve been working on this TV show secretly for four years. I’m [in early development] on a pilot and getting it right. Monkeypaw Productions is [in talks to] produce it -- Jordan Peele’s company. I’ve got this little collaboration I’m doing with [the French clothing brand] APC that’s coming out soon. I definitely know myself better than I ever have. I’ve arrived at this point of feeling 34. When I was 30, I didn't feel 30. I still felt younger than my age. I felt like I was going to get some type of wisdom, something was going to hit me when I turned 30. It didn't happen. It came a little later for me, but it’s here, and it feels great.
Legacy and influence are really difficult things to unravel in the moment, especially for an artist as young as you are, but you mentioned Jaden earlier, and I think he’s one of a handful of rap artists younger than you who list you as a major influence. You’ve granted a lot of permissions through your openness and emotional aesthetics, and I’m wondering how you look out on all of that now.
It was my intention to inspire, to change things. I wanted to infect the game with my energy and my beliefs on how to create music. My rules. I didn't know how many people would catch on, but I knew the right people would. The thinkers. It’s 2018, [and] we’re talking about music I made 10 years ago. That’s wild. I’ve influenced people, and it makes me feel good about the stuff that I’ve done. I don’t think about sales. I’m in a good place creatively, and it’s a beautiful thing to know that there’s people still out there that want to listen to what I’ve got to say. I’ve never really thought about my legacy too much. But things are going to get a lot more trippy, and I’m into that. I like where we’re headed.