Kid Cudi
The Ritz, Raleigh
Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016

When Kid Cudi took the stage at The Ritz in Raleigh Saturday night, silhouetted by a glowing LED doorway and surrounded by giant tube TVs, he wasn’t just there to perform music. He was also there to perform a dicey balancing act, one that is more often stock-in-trade for stubborn rock stars than for six-year rap veterans—that is, subtly introducing new, as-of-yet unpopular material to a cult audience primarily interested in hearing dated hits.

Such is the dilemma for perennial music industry malcontent Kid Cudi, who, though still eminently popular and culturally relevant, has never produced more influential work than his 2009 debut, Man on the Moon: The End Of Day, and its 2010 follow-up, Man On The Moon II: The Legend Of Mr. Rager.

Unquestionably ahead of their time, Cudi’s first two albums sound contemporary when played alongside hip-hop hits of today. They point to the kind of talent that made him a chief contributor to Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. For the “lonely stoner,” weirdness didn’t seem to be something temporary but rather a state of equilibrium. In the years that have followed—with releases like WZRD, Indicud, and Satellite Flight—things have only gotten stranger. And last December, he kept the crazy train rolling with Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven, an alt-rock album with little nuance and even less focus. It was widely panned, and in the album’s first week, it moved a paltry 15,000 units.

Imagine for a moment you are a touring artist, and this is the album you are supposed to be promoting—oh, and that most people just want to hear the same songs you’ve been performing for the last five years. Sounds fun, right?

Still, to expect a total emo-grunge trainwreck from Cudi would be to underestimate the artist’s tact, as well as the loyalty of his fan base, which erupted with applause after almost every song—even the ones that clearly had everyone lost. Considering the content of Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven, that happened often. Toeing the line between pridefully disowning his old material and disproportionately leaning on it, Cudi opened by sprinkling a collection of popular songs—“REVOFEV,” “Mojo So Dope,” “Erase Me,” “Soundtrack 2 My Life”—amid an equal amount of lesser-known cuts from Satellite Flight and Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven. The result was predictably schizophrenic, with electrifying moments of full-throttle, chorus-chanting energy followed by interminable periods of awkward fidgeting. After the only intermission of the two-hour show, the on-again, off-again pattern continued.

Although the crowd was largely supportive of Cudi’s new material, there’s no question that the rapper and rocker walks in the shadow of the larger-than-life hits of his past. He didn’t even truly perform “Day N Nite,” opting instead for a remixed medley of other vocals over the famous Crookers remix. Still, it may have been the most electric moment of the evening. During the chorus of “Erase Me,” the crowd was so loud that Cudi was free to simply hum in harmony on stage, giving the song a satisfying new twist.

Some moments showcased the lighthearted, goofy personality that has played a key role for Cudi—a fake late-night talk show entrance gag with his drummer; wryly suggestive leg kicks while atop one of the stage’s big speakers; squatting down and simply gyrating during a song. Part of what makes him fun to watch is the unique way he commands the stage, and it was on full display in Raleigh.

Kid Cudi continues to go underappreciated as an artist who came out of left field and ended up helping design today’s mainstream. Now, he’s on another sonic journey, but is Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven another prescient offering or just a bungled mistake? Who knows.

His fan base may not totally understand the new aesthetic yet, but if his balanced, well-received performance at The Ritz is any indication, they won’t be giving up on him anytime soon.