During his Houston stop on the Saint Pablo Tour in September 2016, Kanye West declared Kid Cudi “the most influential artist of the past 10 years.” The roars from the crowd were both immediate and deafening.
Granted, the reaction picked up an undeniable boost given such a statement signaled an end to a public Kanye/Cudi feud that dominated headlines a mere week earlier. But the widespread acclaim from fans resonated more so as a consensus nod to the rapper that both re-defined the genre and led the charge for a budding generation of hip-hop artists — the first to come of age in a primarily digital-based world of consumption — and fans alike.
Coincidentally, West’s 2016 comments came just a few days after the birthday of Kid Cudi’s most influential project, Man on the Moon: The End of Day. The debut album celebrates its 10th anniversary on Sunday (Sept. 15), and in many ways feels more suited for 2019 than it does for 2009, thanks to the precedent it set a decade ago and the many followers it inspired in its wake. Guided by soul-baring diary entries over genre-blending beats, Cudi’s Man on the Moon uniquely captures the peaks and valleys of the human mind on a day-to-day basis — moments of unadulterated bliss and boundless promise intertwine frequently with equally intense, deep moments of vulnerability, anxiety and sadness — in a way that few hip-hop projects had accomplished before, and that many have attempted to recreate since.
At the time, Cudi was slightly over a year removed from A Kid Named Cudi — his ambitious debut mixtape that sampled multiple Outkast tracks and included the first appearance of his biggest Hot 100 hit to-date, the No. 3-peaking “Day N Nite” — and was hardly an artist on the outside looking in any longer. Following the tape’s success, West tapped Cudi to help out on 808s & Heartbreaks, a project that breathes the latter’s influence and that set a synth-drenched, less-is-more production precedent within the genre in its own right.
Shortly thereafter, Cudi signed to G.O.O.D. Music and was able to slap an ‘executive produced by Kanye West’ label on a forthcoming debut record. The secret about the Cleveland-born musician was out and pressure was mounting: Kanye West and under-the-radar don’t exactly go hand-in-hand. Early fans — like fellow rapper Logic, years before he’d become a household name in the hip-hop industry — waited with anticipation.
“I loved [A Kid Named Cudi], but with one mixtape, it’s like, ‘Okay cool, but what else you got?” he remembers to Billboard. “That’s every artist there is: you do one or two things, but can you really deliver?”
Cudi answers “what else you got?” succinctly on the album: everything. He and fellow producers Plain Pat and Emile Haynie throw the kitchen sink at the listener from the jump — they interpolate Jay-Z on the second track (“Soundtrack 2 My Life”), sample a 1983 synth pop record on the next (“Simple As…”) and then quickly pivot into borrowing from an instrumental soul group on the one after that (“Solo Dolo (Nightmare)”). The project warps genres together seemingly at will: “Alive (Nightmare)” introduces a fusion of the modern indie rock world with hip-hop; “Pursuit of Happiness” blends an 808s vibe with nostalgic neo-psychedelia; mainstream pop gets its shine courtesy of a Lady Gaga “Poker Face” sample on “Make Her Say.” And while such genre-bending feels perfectly at home in 2019, the same couldn’t be said in a more sonically stratified 2009.
“He opened an entire world sonically for me,” Logic says of Cudi. “It completely reshaped how I wanted to make my music. It showed me that I don’t have to stick in the bubble and don’t necessarily [have to] flow with conformity.”
The album’s lyrical content kicked down doors, too. Man on the Moon’s opening track, “In My Dreams (Cudder Anthem),” concludes its floating, twinkling tune with a Common-narrated verse that promises “a voice who spoke of vulnerabilities and other human emotions and issues never before heard so vividly and honest.” And while saying hip-hop had never touched on then-taboo topics like anxiety or depression would disservice ‘90s classics like the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” or The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Suicidal Thoughts” — not to mention his own mentor’s early work in 2004 on “All Falls Down” — it’s safe to say that promoting a single with lyrics like “Tell me what you know about them night terrors every night/ 5 a.m., cold sweats, waking up to the sky,” wasn’t normal fare for a 2009 rap single.
“It was kind of shocking for that moment in time because hip-hop was very macho,” notes Ratatat’s Evan Mast (also known as E*vax), who produced both “Pursuit of Happiness” and “Alive (Nightmare).” “To have somebody get on the microphone and express these vulnerabilities was definitely not something you were used to hearing at that time.”
Of course, Cudi was aiming for as much, as he mentioned in a 2018 Billboard cover story: “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 right people” ended up being the next generation of hip-hop artists and fans. In the years since Man on the Moon dropped, dozens of brand name rappers have cited Cudi as a major influence on their own work: Travis Scott. Tyler, the Creator. ASAP Rocky. Logic. Kevin Abstract. Jaden Smith. Juice WRLD. Lil Yachty. KYLE. The list stretches on. Other celebrities like Pete Davidson and Timothée Chalamet have lauded praise on Cudi, with the former even crediting the rapper for saving his life through his music (Scott and KYLE have previously said the same).
“From a lyrical standpoint [Man on the Moon] was just honest,” says KYLE. “It was so relatable because he was just talking about his human experience and himself in his truest form. I think for a long time before Kid Cudi, a lot of people thought in order to be a rapper, you needed to fit one experience.”
“When I heard it for the first time, it was almost like the little voice in my head made an album,” adds Logic, who has tackled heavy mental health topics of his own throughout his career, most notably with the Hot 100 top-5 hit “1-800-273-8255.” “It allowed me to go, ‘This motherfucker has anxiety? I have anxiety!’”
But for all of the project’s ventures into the darker, more introspective depths of the mind — four of the project’s song titles include the word “nightmare” in parentheses — he captures the jubilant highs just as aptly, often flipping the switch from one to the other at a moment’s notice. On “Alive (Nightmare),” he says, “I’m not myself, I’m feel I’m thrown into a fight/ Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, nothing’s right,” before bursting sonically and lyrically into the stratosphere on its follow-up “Cudi Zone,” where he boasts with his signature hum about “soaring” and “feeling all right.”
In a recent Complex cover story, Kid Cudi discussed a departure from such personal work on his next album, whenever that may come: “after Kids See Ghosts, I felt like I said all I had to say,” he notes of his Kanye West collaborative album from June 2018, specifically speaking in regards to his mental state following his rehab stint in 2016. But regardless of whether or not the world gets the privilege of hearing more of Cudi’s personal story in the next chapter of his career, his fingerprints have been permanently stamped on the direction of modern music, thanks to Man on the Moon.
“It just freed a lot of people from limitations that they thought they had,” says KYLE. “It freed artists from thinking they couldn’t talk about certain things, it freed artists and producers from thinking they couldn’t do certain things musically. It freed a whole generation of kids from thinking they couldn’t be what they wanted to be.”