Scott Mescudi was born in 1984 in the Shaker Heights neighborhood of Cleveland, OH. The youngest of four children, his mother was a middle-school choir teacher, while his father painted houses, was a substitute teacher and WWII veteran. At age 11, Mescudi’s father died of cancer, which was the start to a turbulent adolescence. He was expelled from high school after threatening to punch his principal, and eventually moved to Brooklyn, NY to pursue a career in hip-hop.
Working at a clothing store (where he fortuitously met Kanye West), Mescudi worked on music and lived with his uncle until being kicked out over a disagreement. That’s when Kid Cudi (his name as a musician) wrote the hit single “Day ‘N’ Nite” and rose to fame as the “lonely stoner.” He then released an acclaimed mixtape, and after being signed to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music label, he dropped “Man on the Moon: The End of Day”—still, one of my favorite albums. In 2010, Cudi released the sequel to his first album, entitled “Man on the Moon: The Legend of Mr. Rager.” From there, he picked up the guitar and dabbled in rock/alternative music to produce an album with his friend Dot Da Genius, under the name WZRD. And most recently, he’s released self-produced albums “Indicud” and “Satellite Flight.”
So, why would I use the words good, true, and beautiful to describe a “lonely stoner” and hip-hop artist? Because, as Peter Kreeft noted at this year’s Acton University, when you come across something that possesses these qualities, you simply know it. Let me explain.
If you listen to Cudi’s music, you’ll notice one thing right away. Both his lyrics and the synthetic, almost ethereal sound are brimming with imagination, story, and deep emotion. By these characteristics, his music transcends the base materialism that much of our culture is occupied with. He calls himself the “man on the moon,” because he finds himself in a world where he doesn’t quite belong. Sound familiar? His music takes the listener on a journey to a different reality, beyond the here and now. It is an escape from the pain and misery of this world, but it is also more than that. It’s a journey to a reality that is more real and lasting than our physical earth—full of deep meaning and heart-breaking emotion. Do I think Cudi is intentionally making music that embodies the metaphysical? Not necessarily. But I do think he has a human knowledge of that metaphysical reality deep in his heart—and he has managed to tap into it through his music.
More concretely, Cudi’s music is a compelling illustration of the human experience. Take the narrative of his first album as an example. It starts dreamily and proceeds into honest pain about the struggles of life. “I’ve got some issues that nobody can see…” he sings.
A recurring theme throughout the album is loneliness—listen to “Solo Dolo” and “Day N’ Night” in particular. Admitting loneliness, especially for someone in the hip-hop scene, is entirely counter-cultural. It signals a humble need for relationship with others—a lack of independence. We all experience it, but too few are willing to admit it. Through these songs, Cudi is being extraordinarily vulnerable. He is open about his doubts, his sadness, his dependency. In a comforting way, his songs meet the listener in his or her loneliest places.
Continuing through the album, he expresses resilience with “Heart of a Lion,” bitter and hopeful retribution with “My World,” invincibility through the most difficult of situations with “Sky Might Fall,” escape with “Cudi Zone,” and desperate, but unsuccessful pursuit of fulfillment with “Pursuit of Happiness.” As with all of his albums, he ends on an optimistic high note with “Up Up and Away.”
In a world of contemporary music that rarely does more than feed our culture’s hedonism, Cudi is a breath of fresh air.
In fact, scores of listeners have remarked how his music has gotten them through hard times, including teenager Ben Breedlove who died from a heart condition in 2011 (Cudi dedicated his 2012 WZRD album to Breedlove). Check out Cudi’s Twitter feed sometime; he must spend a few hours each day encouraging and personally interacting with his fans.
In a recent interview with Arsenio Hall, Mescudi described why he makes music:
See why I’m such a fan?
Behind the music, Mescudi’s life is a story of pain, suffering, and redemption. He has struggled with depression, thoughts of suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse. For years, he was known for his regular use of marijuana—something that he used as an escape from the worries of life. However, after the birth of his daughter (Vada) a few years ago, Mescudi decided to quit smoking. For his daughter’s sake in particular, he pledged to start taking life seriously—simply escaping from it was no longer an option. And since, it seems that he’s been healthier and happier (listen, for example, to the WZRD track “High Off Life”).
To be honest, I’m not sure what his faith background is—as far as I know, he has never publicly discussed it. But regardless, in many ways both his music and his life reflect the Truth. Call it natural law or common grace: he’s got it, and he’s sharing it with the world.
All of this is well and good, but why am I bringing your attention to Cudi anyway?
For one, I think many Christians are too quick to disregard any and all popular culture as depraved and unworthy of our attention. Many will hear a few bits of vulgarity and immediately cover their ears. I wish that we would go beyond the rough exterior and listen more deeply to what many “secular” artists are communicating. In “Soundtrack 2 My Life,” for example, Cudi raps that sex and marijuana are the only things that calm him down—but admits that neither bring him satisfaction nor fulfillment. There is something refreshingly real and honest about that. As he himself acknowledges, he has his shortcomings and vices, but that isn’t reason to write him—or anyone else—off completely.
[pq]Christians ought to enter into culture with the hope of capturing people’s hearts, not necessarily their minds.[/pq]
Our false sense of moral superiority often causes us to distance ourselves from our broken culture—and attempt to create a completely different culture entirely, rather than actively engaging it in positive ways. This is a mistake. We should do what we can to show the world truth, goodness, and beauty, and as we do, we should appreciate (as gifts from God) other glimpses of what is good and beautiful—no matter the source.
Secondly, I think Christians have something important to learn from Cudi about cultural engagement and the purpose of art. The defining characteristic of his music is vulnerability, which is absolutely critical to relating with others. And being relatable is a necessary first step in engaging culture. In our art and culture-making, our goal should be to meet people where they are, and lift them above it. Cudi does just that.
Reflected in this is his understanding of the nature of culture, which is far more adept than that of most Christians. Using the words of Peter Kreeft once again, Cudi “tells” rather than “shows.” This is the difference between storytelling and philosophizing. Too many Christian artists try to philosophize or bluntly evangelize through their art.
Listen to the song “Joyful Noise” by a pair of Christian rappers. Right off the bat they are quoting scripture and dropping Jesus’ name like they’re preaching to the choir. Unfortunately, preaching and engaging culture are vastly different. Christians ought to enter into culture with the hope of capturing people’s hearts, not necessarily their minds. That means sharing pieces of goodness, truth, and beauty in compelling ways. And to do that, we need emotional, creative, and relatable storytelling.
Believe it or not, we might want to look to people like Cudi for models of how to do it well.