A Kid Named Cudi: Scott Mescudi's Style Legacy
A Kid Named Cudi: Scott Mescudi's Style Legacy
- Words Asaf Rotman
- Date October 15, 2020
The story of a kid named Cudi is one of mythic proportions. A retail employee turned rapper. A multi-platinum selling artist shirking convention and making a musical "about-face" in his prime. A sense of style well ahead of its time, praised too late and forgotten too soon. A legacy of unkept promises, postponed records and critical disappointment. A new sort of honesty, never before soon in the hip-hop community. A tale of drug dependency, sobriety and contemplated suicide.
A complex figure in more ways than one, Kid Cudi is one of the most under-appreciated and misunderstood artists in the industry. Revered by die-hard fans and written off by just about everyone else, Kid Cudi’s recent resurgence is a decade in the making. But who exactly is he? A rapper? An early-2000s style icon? A stoner hero or a sober father? The answer is all of that and more. A triple threat whose career is as interesting as it is frustrating, Cudi is just as likely to appear on Conan O’Brien in six figure Nike Air Mags as he is to release a techno-rock remix or appear in an ill-received indie feature. Yet, with a forthcoming animated television show and newfound public persona, it is due time the artist was recognized—for his stylistic achievements and beyond.
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Born Scott Ramon Seguro Mescudi in Cleveland, Ohio, Mescudi began his foray into hip-hop in high school. The youngest of four children, Mescudi grew up between the Shaker Heights and Solon neighborhoods. Following the loss of his father at 11—a pivotal moment that steered the young teen towards alternative music—Mescudi had various legal troubles, eventually dropping out of high school altogether. After completing a GED, Mescudi enrolled at the University of Toledo to study film, however left after a year. Plans of joining the military like his World War II veteran father fell through due to his juvenile record, so Mescudi chose to move in with his uncle in the South Bronx to pursue music in earnest.
A fan of lyrical hip-hop groups including The Pharcyde and A Tribe Called Quest, Mescudi’s influences were drastically different than what dominated the New York airwaves at the time, when the likes of Dipset and Bad Boy records controlled radio. Still, with a few hundred dollars and a haphazardly constructed demo, he left for New York.
Though his music was slow to take off, his day job presented him ample opportunity. Heavily influenced by Pharrell, Mescudi was already a BAPE fan in high school, and though he could never afford it, he always dreamt of wearing the brand's brightly colored camo. Fast forward to December, 2004, shortly after Mescudi arrived in New York, when the first official BAPE store opened in SoHo (then called BUSY WORK SHOP NEW YORK). After applying a number of times, Mescudi was finally hired and began working as a retail associate. Though most of the items were still out of reach—he told Pharrell during a radio interview that he would have to borrow clothes from the store managers—working at BAPE was a dream come true.
Coincidentally, it was there that Mescudi met future mentor Kanye West. In the midst of his “backpack Louis Vuitton don” era, West would regularly shop at BAPE, and the two bonded after Mescudi failed to remove an anti-theft clothing tag from a jacket West purchased. Though the budding relationship did not lead to a deal (yet), it soon proved monumental.
After a few months with little in the way of career advancement, Mescudi’s uncle grew frustrated and kicked him out. Though a low point, the event inspired Kid Cudi’s breakthrough hit, “Day 'N' Night”. Before his electronic-meets-lo-fi hip-hop was even really a genre, Kid Cudi introduced a melodic, moody and emotional style of rap that was unlike anything listeners had ever heard. Tackling themes of loneliness, aimlessness and uncertainty, the song became a stoner anthem and Kid Cudi (aka “The Lonely Stoner”) was a hero. Produced by frequent collaborator Dot Da Genius, “Day 'N' Night” was initially recorded in 2007, leaking in December of that year before an official release in February, 2008. Premiering during the height of the music blog era, the song did the rounds and was well received, garnering Mescudi a fan base and eventually paving the way for his debut mixtape.
Already known within the streetwear circle after a few years at BAPE, New York label 10.Deep offered to host Kid Cudi’s mixtape which was available as a free download via its website. More than just an emerging rapper, Kid Cudi was a celebrated local style authority, featured in Complex—back when it was still a Marc Ecko-helmed physical magazine—for his experimental wardrobe. Of course there was plenty of BAPE in rotation, but rare Nike SB Dunks, slim A.P.C denim, trucker hats and leather jackets meant Mescudi dressed more like a post-punk skater than your average rapper. Though a shock to many, it was well ahead of its time and bloggers took note. After releasing “Day 'N' Night” as the lead single, Kid Cudi dropped A Kid Named Cudi. The release also marked Mescudi’s first foray into fashion, with a limited-edition collaborative T-shirt celebrating the mixtape. Featuring a space graphic and emblazoned with “Up There,” the tee was a reference to the one of the tapes most celebrated tracks and future moniker, “Man on the Moon (The Anthem)”.
Co-produced by duo and repeat collaborators Plain Pat and Emilie Haynie, the mixtape was a critical darling, beloved for its authentic expression, clever lyricism and unorthodox style. With samples ranging from Outkast to Paul Simon, the mixtape was exceedingly original and made Cudi a cult figure. Clearly impressed with both his own production and the rising talent, Plain Pat shared the mixtape with West (whom he was managing at the time). An immediate fan, West reached out to Mescudi and asked him to fly out to Hawaii where the two worked on West’s seminal 808s & Heartbreak. Clearly influenced by Mescudi’s sing-songy, electronic approach to hip-hop, West later acknowledged Mescudi played a pivotal role in the album’s development, and was credited as co-writer on several tracks including “Heartless”, “Robocop” and “Paranoid”. It wasn’t long thereafter that West made the relationship official, signing Kid Cudi to his GOOD Music imprint in the fall of 2008.
No longer simply a downtown New York retail employee, by early 2009 Mescudi was a full-fledged star. A shoe-in for that year’s XXL Freshman Class, Mescudi continued his hot streak with an unexpected “Day 'N' Night” remix with Italian house duo The Crookers. While atypical for an emerging rapper, the track was a natural progression for Mescudi, a noted fan of the genre. A huge club record, the remix was a massive success across Europe and helped introduce Kid Cudi to fans abroad.
At the same time, Mescudi announced a debut album, Man on the Moon: The End of Day, slated for later that year. He graced the cover of Complex and, after years of working at BAPE, came full circle with his first official collaboration (one of many). Part of the Baby Milo line, the tee featured an animated Kid Cudi decked in a full-zip Sharkhead hoodie. Just three years after leaving his retail job, Kid Cudi released an official collaboration with the retailer, and later starred in an ad campaign, just like his mentor Kanye. Suffice to say, Mescudi had arrived. Capping the year with the September release of Man on the Moon, Mescudi was no doubt the artist of the year. Unfortunately, that’s when the trouble started.
While proclamations of joint projects with fellow Cleveland artist Chip The Ripper (now King Chip) and electric-rock duo Ratatat abounded, both never materialized. Critical reception of the album was largely positive, though commercially was somewhat of a let down. Then there was the sudden announcement of Cudder and The Evolution of Revolution, a sophomore album that was similarly postponed before eventually renamed Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager. Once again produced by Plain Pat and Emilie Haynie with help from Dot Da Genius and West, the sequel album was noticeably darker in tone, diving further into the themes of loneliness, depression and anxiety that Kid Cudi had previously explored.
His style too, once elevated streetwear mixing BAPE and slim denim with retro Jordans matured, ditching some of his beloved streetwear in favor of predominantly black designer wares, no doubt the result of months spent with West. Though the singles “Erase Me” and “Mr. Rager” largely delivered, following such a monolithic 2009 it was difficult to meet expectations and the album—despite being arguably his best work in retrospect—largely fell flat, a tepid response from both critics and fans alike.
Officially released in November 2010, Man on the Moon II was the beginning of a seismic career shift. Though first week sales were respectable, 169,000 units and debuting at number three on the Billboard Hot 100, the album took nearly eight years to go platinum.
A month prior to the album’s release, Mescudi announced that Dream On—the record label the artist had founded with Plain Pat and Emilie Haynie—had been dissolved, citing creative differences. Clearly a bad omen for fans eagerly anticipating a third album of the presumed trilogy. Just a few months later, though still widely respected in the rap community, Kid Cudi announced that he was forming a rock band with Dot Da Genius, tentatively called WIZARD (later renamed WZRD).
Fans were perplexed. Why would an artist at the brink of superstardom who had yet to reach his full potential switch genres entirely? Still they remained hopeful, and with ample reason. While Kid Cudi’s music career was in a precarious position, his acting career was just taking off. In 2010, Scott Mescudi debuted as Domingo in HBO’s critically-maligned yet cult-favorite How To Make It In America, a scripted drama about two best friends attempting to transform downtown clout to a career in the fashion industry.
Though the show was cancelled after just two seasons, Mescudi was clearly a star, demanding screen time and transforming a recurring role into series regular. Like his real life counterpart, Domingo (Mescudi's character) was a connected downtown nightlife impresario, a part-time pot dealer whose demeanor was as slick as his style. No doubt self-styled, Domingo dressed almost identically to Mescudi, wearing A.P.C. jeans, Jordans, SB Dunks, leather jackets and lensless glasses, a trend that the creative arguably pioneered. While his music career often irritated fans, in a pre-Donald Glover world, many assumed Kid Cudi was this generation’s true multi-hyphenate.
No longer content with acting, Mescudi had ambitions to write and direct leading to a short film, Maniac co-starring himself and fellow rapper Cage. Directed by none other than fellow style icon Shia LaBeouf, whom Mescudi met through Cage and hired to direct his “Marijuana” music video, the Black slasher film was a moderate success, released on Halloween via Youtube.
The same year, Mescudi unveiled the Mr. Rager short film, a narrative music video similar to West’s Dark Fantasy. Guest starring West and creative directed by Surface to Air designer Jeremie Rozan, the video featured an extended fight sequence and debuted Kid Cudi’s next clothing endeavor, two custom leather jackets inspired by Michael Jackson’s Thriller costumes. Though initially designed for the video, fans immediately began clamoring for the jackets and eventually a small number were produced for retail. Though somewhat forgotten, in some circles the Kid Cudi x Surface to air leather is still considered an unimpeachable grail.
Though a few singles and some features surfaced over the course of 2011, for the most part, fans were left waiting. Every so often Kid Cudi would take to Twitter and announce a new project in the pipeline or announce a new album, but release dates came and went with little in the way of music. There had always been rumors of drug abuse and after countless empty promises and a relatively low public profile, many began to fear the rumors were true.
Then, finally, in January, 2012 Kid Cudi dropped WZRD, his debut rock album. It was... not good.
Critics were irate, fans displeased. While fans were well aware influences included Empire of the Sun and The Pixies, the result was an overwhelming failure to bridge the genres. Mescudi’s famously fragile ego was no doubt bruised by this overwhelming rejection. Still, there was hope. Kid Cudi was still a member of GOOD Music, a key player in the roster and a repeat presence on West’s GOOD Fridays, a string of singles that lead up to his magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Fans were sure the Kid Cudi they desperately wanted was still there.
Mescudi continued to act, starring in West’s legendary unseen short film Cruel Summer which debuted in Cannes on seven screens simultaneously, along with various other indies. His style developed too. By 2012 he had switched the Jordans for Nike Air Yeezy IIs and famously sold all of his BAPE on eBay. Still, a true Kid Cudi project failed to surface.
Finally, in 2013, Mr. Solo Dolo dropped Indicud. Billed as a “return to form,” the album was a moderate success, with fans largely unimpressed but hopeful. Rumor was that the artist had gone sober and was in a new headspace. He was touring once again and focused on being a father. Still, it had been almost four years since his debut album and though die hard fans could not be swayed, the world had largely moved on. In 2013 Kid Cudi parted ways with GOOD Music, his last contribution various vocals on the Cruel Summer compilation album. Many feared Mescudi was the next Lupe Fiasco, and his next two releases Satellite Flight: Journey to Mother Moon and Speedin’ Bullet to Heaven did little to dissuade them.
Still, there were high points. On tours Kid Cudi would always play the classics, and between Virgil Abloh designed tour merch, a pillow like sneaker collaboration with Giuseppe Zanotti and a headline-making gender-bending crop top on the Coachella stage in 2014, his stylistic endeavors were not forgotten. Yet, these intermittent events did little to fix public perception, particularly considering how famously private the artist is. While sobriety did help, Kid Cudi’s depression worsened, eventually revealing via Facebook in 2016 he had voluntarily enrolled in rehab due to thoughts of self-harm and suicidal tendencies.
In December, 2016, Kid Cudi dropped his sixth studio album, Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’. Features included André 3000 and Pharrell and, for the first time in years fans were actually excited. This was the Kid Cudi they could all get behind. Though the album was overstuffed—for any artist 19 tracks is hard to justify—that original feeling was there. And, yes, fans were promised Man on the Moon III. It was a step in the right direction. Along with the album, Mescudi’s public persona reemerged. A feud with Kanye West was squashed. Kid Cudi worked extensively with Travis Scott on Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight. His influence was suddenly everywhere.
For the next couple of years—musically, at least–Kid Cudi was largely quiet. He was spotted leaving the studio with West on a number of occasions throughout 2017 and even accompanied him on a trip to Japan to meet Takashi Murakami in his studio. There were murmurings of a joint venture but nothing concrete.
Then, in April, 2018 West took to Twitter to announce a full-fledged collaborative album from their new group, Kids See Ghosts. Part of the “Wyoming sessions,” a slew of GOOD music albums released one week apart including releases from Teyana Taylor, Pusha-T, Nas and West himself, Kids See Ghosts was arguably the most anticipated, considering for years the two had magic together charting all the way back to 808s & Heartbreak. For the first time in years, the response to a Kid Cudi album was overwhelmingly good.
Filled with the type of introspective lyrics we have grown accustomed to, some commendable bars from West and Kid Cudi’s beloved humming, the album was exactly the career re-jolt Kid Cudi needed. From there, the full blown Kid Cudi resurgence blossomed. First there was the Kids See Ghosts merch, a collaboration with beloved streetwear label Cactus Plant Flea Market that instantly sold out and flooded resale sights. Just three weeks after the album dropped, Kid Cudi—now in his late-30s, mind you—was walking down the runway for Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton men’s debut, with a smile stretching from ear to ear. The melancholy crooner (at least, externally) seemed confident, happy even; it was a far cry from his mid-2010s lows. His daily style, too, evolved, taking on a new dimension. What was once slim and relatively habitual became highly experimental, filled with Louis Vuitton, fuzzy Marni sweaters and wide legged trousers. His public persona was back and the industry noticed.
It’s no coincidence that in 2019 A.P.C. founder Jean Touitou reached out to Kid Cudi to begin working on a capsule collection, the first of the label’s “Interaction” series, where Touitou enlisted creatives and designers to provide their take on house classics. Featuring a cardigan, striped long sleeve, paint splattered T-shirt and red leather jacket, the collection was a riff on all the things Cudi loves and has always worn. Yet, an undeniably bold color palette made the collection, for lack of a better word, happy. These are loud clothes that make a statement, not the sort that let you slink away into a corner. They—whether intentionally or not—show a new side of "Mr. Solo Dolo". Of course there were also two pairs of jeans, but considering Scott Mescudi was arguably the label’s foremost denim proponent, how could there not be.
What’s next for Scott Mescudi is uncertain. A recently announced animated television show directed by Takashi Murakami featuring both his and West’s voice is in the works, tentatively titled Kids See Ghosts—a follow-up to their collective work on the album. There's The Scotts, the name of his recently released single and group alongside Travis Scott with artwork by KAWS. Man on the Moon III is still a mystery, with both Plain Pat and Emilie Haynie expressing interest. At one point, a clothing line was mentioned. Regardless, no matter where the creative heads, this next chapter feels exciting—hopeful, even. After years of disillusionment, uncertainty and disappointment, Mescudi’s second coming is rightly earned. His resume is undeniable. Thankfully, the world is finally paying attention.