Established recording artists altering their signature styles isn’t anything new.
Bob Dylan made a controversial turn from folk troubadour to electric guitar-wielding bad boy in the ’60s, the Goo Goo Dolls turned in their Replacements-style sound for a more radio-friendly one in the late ’90s and David Bowie has altered both his music and image more times than one can remember.
Recently, hip-hop artists like Kanye West and Lil’ Wayne have been changing up their tunes with varying degrees of success, with West recording the Phil Collins-inspired “808s and Heartbreaks” in 2008, and Wayne releasing the critically maligned “Rebirth” in 2010. West prodigy and “Day ‘N’ Nite” singer Kid Cudi shares a similar penchant for diverse musical influences, having even co-written tracks on “808s,” and shows off the extent of what he’s learned about revitalizing one’s sound on “WZRD.”
Formed as a project between Cudi and record producer Dot da Genius in 2010, WZRD’s self-titled debut album has drawn comparisons to artists such as Electric Light Orchestra, Nirvana and The Pixies, proving Cudi didn’t plan this as another album based solely on hip-hop conceits. “WZRD” doesn’t exactly live up to these high standards, but there’s plenty to hold a listener’s interest throughout its 11 tracks.
Cudi is no stranger to rock music, having released the Hendrix-riffing track “Erase Me” on his second album “Man on the Moon 2: The Legend of Mr. Rager,” which featured little hip-hop outside of a short guest verse by West. Opening “WZRD” track “The Arrival” announces just that, priming listeners to the album’s variety of sounds in an entirely instrumental track with guitar riffs and hip-hop-ready beats.
That’s when we’re bombarded with the rest of the album, starting with the second track, “High Off Life.” The song sees the notoriously cannabis-dependent Cudi proclaiming he may actually be clean and sober for once, exclaiming: “Never thought the day would come for me, when I would be high off life, there’s so much I have to see.”
It’s reassuring to see that this new musical direction isn’t altering what made Cudi a commodity to begin with – the fact that his music is in many ways an intimate representation of himself. Between “High Off Life” and the follow-up “The Dream Time Machine,” where Cudi laments his dreams that have come true and the ones that haven’t in his short career, anyone worrying about Cudi losing his unwavering sense of optimism and at times self-deprecating ways should breathe a sigh of relief.
Yet, listeners hoping for an entirely new side of Cudi will come away disappointed because “WZRD” isn’t too much of a departure from what he’s done on his own albums.
Standout tracks like “Love Hard,” “Live and Learn” and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” are more rock-influenced than you’d come to expect, partly due to frequent production by Genius, but not by much. Perhaps some will be relieved by the fact that Cudi hasn’t taken a full-on rock detour in the manner Lil’ Wayne did with “Rebirth,” where he obnoxiously posed as a singular rock act in the vein of groups like Linkin Park, all while eschewing his trademark raspy voice.
Cudi doesn’t sound as out of place on these tracks, even within the Pink Floyd-esque trance of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” but for those expecting to hear Cudi truly expand his musical horizons, there’s not a lot here to get excited about.
That’s not to say Cudi is simply peddling around in his comfort zone either, as tracks like “Teleport 2 Me” avoids Cudi’s past experiences of lazily sampling popular tracks like he did on “Make Her Say.”
Taking from the Desire track “Under Your Spell,” Cudi joins Desire singer Megan Louise, who lends her piercing vocals to Cudi’s boozy, lyrical delivery, as the previously uptempo synthesizer tune is molded into a rock ballad complete with wailing guitars and a pounding drum machine.
While Desire’s track stands well on its own terms, Cudi does more than simply sample the song now best known for its appearance in the film “Drive.” Instead, he helps personify the song’s repetitive lovesick yearning with his experiences dealing with a brutal long-distance relationship.
Unfortunately, Cudi ends the “WZRD” album on a bit of a whimper after “Efflictim” and “The Upper Room,” two tracks that conjure images of Kurt Cobain singing over both Nirvana’s blaring power chords and unplugged rhythms. It’s the sort of uneven ode to the future and remaining optimistic that Cudi has already recorded on previous tracks such as “Up, Up and Away.”
While fans of Cudi won’t hear much on “WZRD” that sounds dissimilar to previous tracks like “Pursuit of Happiness” or “Erase Me,” the album is certainly a nice addition to the Cudi discography. Cudi has yet to make a wholly great album, if only because his many influences and ambitions constantly seem to evade his grasp.
Perhaps once Cudi can settle on a definitive sound, he will be able to form one completely coherent album. Until then, one can enjoy his hip-hop sensibilities and schizophrenic musical arrangements as he strives for an all-encompassing style.