Album Review: Kid Cudi, ‘Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’

At this point in his career, Kid Cudi has nothing to prove to anyone. Over the years he has shown that he has no problem alienating his fan base with countless experimental shifts in his music. Kid Cudi has seemingly tried it all, from full out alternative rock albums with WZRD to weird, spacey mostly instrumental concept albums like Satellite Flight. 2015’s notorious Speeding Bullet 2 Heaven, though, featured some of his weirdest, and hardest to listen to experiments yet.

With each new Cudi album it becomes more and more expected that it will be an uneven, grab bag and Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ is no different. The album runs 86 minutes with 19 tracks, and unfortunately only about 8 of them are great. I think it will be best to break this album down into specific sections, because it seems that the individual song quality wavers depending on how far you are into the track list.

The first 5 tracks on this album are all bangers. “Frequency”, “Swim In The Light”, “Releaser”, “By Design”, and “All In” collectively make-up some of Cudi’s best work in a while. On my first listen, by the time I got to “All In”, I was convinced this was going to be one of Cudi’s best albums. They all flow into each other effortlessly and together, they’d make a great EP.

“Frequency”, the first track (and the first single), is the closest he comes to “classic Cudi” as many often say. The beat and the rhythm are pretty old school, and he’s rapping traditionally more than he has in a number of years. “Swim In The Light” is an excellent surprising synth-driven melody that contains one thing I don’t think we’ve ever heard on a Kid Cudi song: autotune. This isn’t a case of simply using it for pitch correction or to hide a lack of vocal ability – he makes it part of the soundscape of the song. The synth instrumental sounds like something you’d hear from the band College, or even late-era Genesis, and coupled with the autotuned vocals, it becomes a very outer space-like track. It sounds like a potential B-side from 2014’s Satellite Flight, which is a plus, seeing as that’s one of Cudi’s best records, if not his absolute best.

The third track, “Releaser” stands out as one of Cudi’s best tracks ever. It’s a slow, atmospheric float through a dark, gloomy cloud of almost horror-like experimentation. This is a track that contains gregorian-style chanting and wailing (in which Cudi himself sounds to be participating), a female opera singer, and a piano outro. All of this is laid over top some of Cudi’s softest, emotional singing ever, but with a traditional kick-snare hip-hop beat serving as the foundation for everything else. It’s one of Cudi’s most bizarre and outlandish ventures to date, and also one of his finest. It’s an eerie, hauntingly beautiful song that is absolutely the album’s biggest highlight. For reasons of pacing, I kind of wish he saved it for the end of the album, but I’ll delve deeper into that a little later.

Tracks 4 and 5, “By Design” and “All In” are your more typical upbeat rap tracks, and they’re both bangers. Cudi’s sing-rap style of vocal delivery is in top shape, and “By Design” features a killer feature from the legendary Andre 3000, who sounds just as good as he ever did. These two songs are the most upbeat and, frankly, the most catchy things Cudi has put out in quite some time. Kid Cudi is the type of artist where, because his albums are usually mixed bags, the meat of back catalog is in those occasional bangers. These two tracks feel like those kind of classic Kid Cudi grooves that will hold up over time.

It is at this point, unfortunately, where the album slowly loses it’s steam. Track 6, “ILLusion”, is an uninteresting, repetitive mix of rap and electronic noises, filled with unfitting trap beats at every corner, and some of Cudi’s most uninspired and flat sounding vocals. It’s a throwaway track if there ever was one and it’s the first of many blunders.

However, the 2 following tracks are much better. “Rose Golden” and “Baptized In Fire” show us that Cudi can still indeed write memorable, catchy hip-hop tunes with catchy melodies and hooks and distinguished, effortless flow. Both of the features on these tracks are also awesome. “Baptized In Fire” features a really cool autotuned chorus melody from Travis Scott, and “Rose Golden”, perhaps the second best track on the album next to “Releaser”, makes excellent use of – of all people – Willow Smith. Both Smith and Cudi show off unexpected vocal range on this track, with Smith’s mid-range contralto serving as a harmonizer for Cudi’s surprisingly low baritones. They’re not two voices I (or likely anyone else) ever expected to hear sing together, but it works really well.

From this point on, every other song on this album — with the exception one track, “Wounds”, which features pounding rhythms and synths behind excellent vocal work — ranges from completely bland, forgettable, and just generally uninteresting to absolutely terrible. There’s songs like “The Guide” and “Does It” where Cudi goes way overboard with his scat/mumble vocals and it becomes a cringe-fest (though, “The Guide” does feature another pretty good Andre 3000 feature), or the songs are just generally….characterless. Whether it was the beats, the flows, the lyrics, the melodies, or any varying combination of all of those things, so many of the middle and later tracks on this record are extremely forgettable and unremarkable. To prepare as thoroughly as possible for this review before writing it, I listened to this album front to back 3 times (that’s over 4 hours of listening time, by the way) and I can honestly say that even after 3 listens, I couldn’t remember a single second of any of the tracks I haven’t previously mentioned by name. On my third go round, I was listening while packing my suitcase to get ready to go on vacation, and for about 10 minutes, I honestly, truthfully, 100% forgot I was even listening to music at all. I zoned out entirely.

There’s two main factors that I think contribute to the fact that so many of these tracks are nearly indistinguishable from background noise. The first is that so many of them just have too much going on at once. It becomes a common occurrence at some point during this album for Cudi to lay too many different tracks and so many different layers on top of one another that it often just becomes an undecipherable wall of sound that isn’t enjoyable to listen to. The second is that is the album as a whole is way too long. As mentioned previously, it’s 19 tracks collectively run 86 minutes. This is considerably less than Speeding Bullet 2 Heaven’s 26-track 91-minute runtime, but it is still too damn much. At a certain point, it starts to feel like a never-ending playlist full of B-sides rather than an album with a consistent, deliberate sense of pace and tone. It’s the only album I can ever recall being boring and exhausting at the same time.

It’s even more awkward to get through on the tracks where Kid Cudi doesn’t really know how to end them. If I had to guess, I’d say a good three fourths of the songs on this album either just stop abruptly, then move on to next one, or he’ll drain out all the instrumentation and have the last couple seconds of the song be acapella. These are both perfectly fine ways to end a song in general, but they both happen so many times that it becomes expected with every new beginning of a song and it no longer becomes exciting whenever a new track starts.

However, the two absolute worst songs on the album, by a landslide, are “Surfin’”, the album’s final track, and “Flight At First Sight/Advanced”:

“Flight At First Sight/Advanced” is barely even classifiable as a song. There is so many different beats and so much vocals happening at the same time that it just sounds like noise. It is 4 minutes of completely random unlistenable nonsense. It has no structure, no purpose, and the lyrics, as far as I can tell, are so nonsensical that they’re basically gibberish. It is just as bad as any of the worst parts of Speed Bullet 2 Heaven.

“Surfin’” is a strange case. It was the 2nd single released for this record, and as a stand-alone song, it wasn’t particularly horrible. It wasn’t good either, but it wasn’t as ear-piercingly bad as some of Cudi’s past experiments have been. It’s a more sunnier, happier sounding track, with a decent rhythm and a blaring, jazzy horns section. Cudi’s vocal delivery is little bit laughable, but as a single, it was decent. But alas, the version of “Surfin’” that closes this album is not completely the same version we heard back in September. The single that was released ran 3 minutes and 58 seconds, while the album version runs a little over 6 minutes. The difference is that while the single version simply ended with two hard saxophone hits – a perfectly efficient way to end the song – the album version continues on with an uncomfortable, tacked-on odyssey of sounds and broken melodies. It begins with a ballpark-style organ playing the songs main hook, then Cudi begins yodeling (yes, yodeling), then a terrible, choppy electronic beat comes in, and someone – I say someone because I don’t know it who is – sings, in a high-pitched falsetto, the phrase “Better get up off of my wave” a total of 54 times. Yes, I counted. Finally, it ends with going acapella again, and the final 20 seconds of this 86-minute album is Kid Cudi slowly yodeling off into the distance. It is one of the strangest, most unnecessary endings I’ve ever heard to not just a Kid Cudi album, but any album, and it turns what would have been a decent, tolerable ending into a muddled, horrible one.

But how does the album compare to Cudi’s last record? Speeding Bullet 2 Heaven, unquestionably his most out-there and experimental venture yet, was supposedly an “alternative rock” album, which received almost universally negative reviews, and was most Cudi’s lowest-charting album to date. Musically speaking, Passion, Pain & Demon’ Slayin is not even comparable, but honestly, if were to chose between to the two for an album to listen to front to back, I would pick SB2H. Say what you want about it (and there’s certainly a lot than can and has been said about it) but even at its worst moments, it was always at least interestingly bad. It was startling, if nothing else, while so much of PP&DS is just plainly boring. There’s so many long stretches where it feels like nothing is happening. Speeding Bullet at least had a variety of interesting ideas to keep you engaged, even if so much of it was truly objectively awful.

Is it even possible to be say that you’re disappointed even though you already anticipated a mixed bag? I’m still not sure. What I am sure of is that it seems like nothing has changed about Kid Cudi’s philosophy towards writing music. He will continue to experiment and write weird, bizarro rap music, throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks, regardless of what I or anyone else has to say about it. And even if I don’t like the result, I can usually admire it, which is why Kid Cudi remains among my favorite contemporary musicians.

Besides, there’s too much good on this album for it to be labeled as objectively bad. A lot of it is underwhelming and a good portion of it just flat out sucks, but when it hits the mark, it hits it really hard (even if some of the best songs were already released as singles). Those killer first 5 tracks, plus “Rose Golden”, “Baptized In Fire” and “Wounds” make the album worth listening to, despite being very small pieces of the pie.

“Baptized In Fire”
“Rose Golden”
“By Design”

“Flight At First Sight/Advanced”

Rating: 6 out of 10