Rap game fickle like a Greek goddess; when you’re hot you’re hot, but let a rapper even feint too far left and watch them get switched on instantaneously.
Oftentimes, a generational divide will push a rapper out of the main sequence. Other times, a rapper only has one song in the tank before they fall off; the common “one-hit wonder”. Vulture’s Craig Jenkins observed that rappers with killer debuts sometimes spend the rest of their career chasing that dragon. In step with that observation finds a rapper attempting a comeback following a lauded project or two, forsaken by Twitter and pundits alike following a subpar project or three. It’s a precarious position that stacks the deck against an emcee even more than before their debut when expectations were yet to exist.
It’s where we find Wale and Kid Cudi in 2016 approaching their fifth and six releases, respectively. Both artists were, at one point, among the game’s most beloved and made magic the few times they’ve linked up. They’ve also had a short-lived spat. Since, off-the-mic struggles have afflicted the two and the public’s reception to their music, though minuscule in comparison to the former, has taken a downturn of its own.
Wale dazzled audiences as a cocky poet, delivering punchy bars nonchalantly on his grand opus, thus far, Ambition. His first gold album, Wale would go on to secure two #1 albums on the strength of his MMG debut. However, neither of the LPs after would live up to the braggadocious wordplay and impassioned passes of Ambition. Pitchfork felt the same, giving his third and fourth major releases lower ratings than the lush, second attempt at greatness. Wale seemed to stumble over lyrics on The Gifted, lacking the upright delivery and suave delivered on tracks “Lotus Flower Bomb” or Rozay’s “Diced Pineapples”, which he renegade’d, released a few months later. Folarin resurrected his role as lady killer on the next release The Album About Nothing (“The Matrimony” and “The Body”), yet there are spots (“The One Time in Houston” and “The Helium Balloon”) when his flow seems to have regressed.
Following Ambition, the talk surrounding Wale slipped into a lull save for when he confronted Complex, who failed to rank his album among the 50 best in 2013, and when in a scuffle with labelmate Meek Mill. The former speaks more to how the game saw the “Slight Work” rapper at the time.
As for Kid Cudi, his decline is nuanced. “Day ‘n’ Nite” shot the Cleveland native into the matrix where he’s remained, influencing and producing some of the most important music along the way. Where Wale was a refreshing change of pace in the genre, Kid Cudi has altered the course of Rap two or three times to date. Emo-Rap was largely an untapped market before the first of two Man on the Moon installments. That is until Kanye came along, hunting for inspiration and found Cudi, who, together helped usher in a wave of rap that is undoubtedly among the most influential. If either of Cudi’s first two solo projects are questionable, his contributions to the classic 808s secure his place in Hip-Hop Cooperstown.
However, it is what’s happened since the MOTMs and 808s that find him in the game’s periphery, hanging out back like Kuiper belt object when he was once as big as Jupiter. The aforementioned feint that zaps the masses’ palate like an effective PTC test resulted in Mr. Rager falling into obscurity while a musical descendant of his (Travis Scott) skied upward under the guise of Cudi’s earliest work. Neither, Indicud, Satellite Flight: The Journey to Mother Moon, nor Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven were well-received by the fans; the latter, not even a rap album, laughed Cudi right out of Rap Twitter and other musically-inclined circles.
Just the right dosage of abstract was ok. The ethereal synths of “Sky Might Fall” and “Day ‘n’ Nite” in accordance with the despondence of the debut album was flanked by enough boom-bap to keep Rap fans and stoners tuned in. Mr. Rager doubled-down on providing loners and outcasts a space with psalms best exemplified on album standout, “Revofev”. But abandoning snares (“Beez”) and paring down elements on other songs, allowing his vocals to carry more of the load on Indicud was the first of Cudi breaking away. Considering SB2H’s reception, popular-belief held that Cudi was stuck on the moon, unlikely to re enter orbit.
One year removed from his paid-no-nevermind Nevermind though, the masses are seemingly willing to allow Cudi back in for Passion, Pain, and Demon Slayin’, which in its earliest offerings are at least promising. The question is: can he peak again?
As for Wale, he’s already shown signs of a return to peak form on “Groundhog’s Day” showing uncanny self-awareness (“most hated on Twitter”) and the reinvention we ask of our favorite artists, employing his hailed poetry meanwhile.
A nudge from industry friends seems to have the rappers in better places altogether. Cudi’s inclusion of Pharrell and Andre 3000 can’t but bolster the album’s quality; their positive vibe personas likely contributing to the feng sui, as well. On the other hand, J. Cole’s amicable taunt on “False Prophets” showed Wale at his most impressive in recent times.
The pair of 32 year olds work wonders for the game when in their bag. When turned in on their respective moons (Wale’s term for his fans and a part of his own musical imprint, Every Blue Moon) though, they flirt with an obsolescence into which preceding emcees with formidable first acts have fallen to no return. Luckily, the two seem rejuvenated and their resilience in the face of their struggles with addiction and mental health make cheering for the two much sweeter. Gotta just keep on rolling.