Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Kid Cudi And The Pursuit Of Happiness

How do we make room for hip-hop stars to bare their demons?

It is nearly impossible to imagine an artist and their work without also framing those ideas around where they come from. With this in mind, when I think of Kid Cudi, I also think of Cleveland, Ohio, in all of its beauty and its moods. I think of how, in winter, a heavy chill drifts in from Lake Erie and sits over the city, sometimes for months, making the outside world a burden. During bad Ohio winters, the ones where pipes burst and thick snow pushes its weight down on power lines, people stay inside unless they have no other choice. There’s a silence in these types of winters that allows for grand, creative moments that come to life later, during warmer months, adding to the vibrancy and brilliance of a city like Cleveland. But it is also hard to shake the isolation, the feeling of loneliness that can creep into the architecture of living. For the past two winters, I’ve driven into Ohio from the north, cutting through Kid Cudi’s old stomping grounds. Abandoned factories still blow clouds of white smoke from their rooftops. I have, in many ways, always found myself rooting for Kid Cudi. Beyond the fact that we share the same home state, he embodies so many parts of it. Even his failures, like last year’s sprawling and confusing Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven, feel triumphant, in that through the work, we learn about what he has had to survive in order to create it. If I, as a consumer of art, create a structure where I choose not to separate an artist’s flaws from the art they create, I am saying that I also must value an artist who leans into a raw and open vulnerability through their art, even if I think it to be occasionally messy. This, after all, is what so many of us say that we want.

The hip-hop song that details and unravels the inner demons of the artist is seen as brave, sometimes a cause for celebration. There is an entire history of songs outlining the complexities of mental health, and the impact mental health has on the creator. Kid Cudi, in a 2012 interview, said that the 1991 Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” was his favorite song in the world. The song is on the Geto Boys album We Can’t Be Stopped, an album that, on the cover, shows members Scarface and Willie D on each side of a hospital bed holding Bushwick Bill, a graphic wound on his face as he recovered from a gunshot he took to his eye. It is a striking and startling album cover – the group’s management took Bushwick Bill directly out of his hospital room to take the photo, Bill’s eyepatch and IV drip removed. Bushwick Bill wanted to die. Before the album’s release, he insisted that his girlfriend kill him, and as they wrestled over a gun, it went off and shot him in the eye. He lived, of course, his destiny instead determined by doctors, loved ones, the music itself. “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” is one of the most fascinating Top 30 rap hits of all time. Each member is at the brink of sanity, with a muddy Isaac Hayes sample rubbing up against a dark guitar. Almost without a doubt, Scarface’s first verse in the song is the one that has held up as his most memorable over the years. But at the end, Bushwick Bill delivers a brief and haunting verse about imagining a man who he’d seen in a dream, following him on Halloween night. He and his crew wrestle the man to the ground and Bill begins punching his face, blood flying back up at him. Eventually, Bill’s crew vanishes. The man who they were fighting vanishes. Bill realizes that it isn’t even Halloween night as his knuckles bleed from punching the concrete where he believed all of his demons to be.

What I think about most, there, is how so many listeners of hip-hop value the song as a stand-alone statement, but not the album cover; not the messaging of the album, or the fact that “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” was the only single the Geto Boys pushed out from it. I often find myself thinking about performative realness. I may, for example, talk loose and easy about how I’ve battled anxiety for years, how I rarely have moments where I’m not anxious. But I’ll press it underneath a joke, or inside of a story with something relatable hanging to it, like an awkward trip to the supermarket with a silly ending. I might, like the Geto Boys, have a moment where I make the story more real, but still add enough distance to it for everyone to feel “moved,” but not confronted with anything. Hip-hop is no different from many other forms of art and celebrity in that it rewards the performance of realness, though it doesn’t always know what to do when it is confronted with an actual life committed to living that level of realness. Kid Cudi, since 2008, has been looking for peace and not finding it. This struggle is there, in his songs, stretched bare and uncomfortable: “Listen good / I don’t have nobody / But what I might feel are the sounds of sanity / Hoping what I hear / Loops itself continuously / Then I won’t be afraid.”

We are a nation obsessed with proof. We want to see the body in all of its living and dying, see the flaws before we can feel anything for them. I feel this, even more, about black people. I see this in myself, knowing that it, at times, has both held me back and kept me safe. Black people talk about how other black people don’t talk enough about mental illness, and I both understand this and understand the difficulty in coming from a skeptical lineage. Perhaps it has to do with coming from ancestors who believed some emotion was good, but too much emotion was weakness in a country that already believed you to be less. All of these things echoed back to me when, last week, Kid Cudi released a statement via Facebook status about checking himself into therapy for depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. The statement was apologetic, riddled with both the jarring honesty he’s delivered in his music and also regret. He had chased peace for as long as he could, and the road led to nothing. The long, emotional message ended with: “I really am sorry. I’ll be back, stronger, better. Reborn. I feel like shit, I feel so ashamed. Im sorry.” I felt a strong wave of sadness for all of the people that we have known who are fighting and losing and still fighting and apologizing the whole time for what they cannot control. Depression, anxiety, grief — so many of these battles seem invisible because they aren’t always worn outside of our bodies. Mental illness is not always public and open violence, but it is sometimes a battle in private to stop that violence from manifesting itself publicly.

The hard thing about empathy is that it costs nothing and yet, in many cases, requires us to reach into difficult places. There is a public performance in this as well. Why say “I understand this, and feel for you” when there is a joke to be made, one that people on the internet might share and laugh at? The work is in not needing to see every facet of a person’s struggle to believe it exists. When the beat is stripped away, when the words don’t rhyme, when we can’t marvel at an MC spinning a brilliant and haunting story, how do we make room for the plain and honest demons? I urge everyone toward empathy, even myself, even for that which seems invisible but is not. To discuss practices of self-care as an abstract thing feels good, but when someone at the edge of all they can take chooses to run into the arms of self-care that may, literally, keep them alive, that also has to be celebrated. The concrete is just as vital and needed as whatever discussions take place in the abstract.

I have a friend from Cleveland who moved south years ago. She told me once that when winter comes, she can still feel the city’s cold in her bones, like it built itself up over all of those years and never left. I don’t know of the storm that is in Kid Cudi’s heart, but I hope it clears a path to something better soon. Despite what we are told, or what we say in the mirror while alone in our rooms, we can still fight whatever fight we need to in order to keep ourselves alive.