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Monday, January 18, 2010
Updated: January 19, 12:20 PM ET
Two ends of the rap spectrum

By Paul Shirley
Special to ESPN.com

If nothing else, I've learned this about the world of music: Like small business owners and Hollywood agents, bands don't work during the holidays. As such, by the time my family had finished tiding its collective yule, my cache of music was as depleted as a UN rice truck after six hours in a Sudanese refugee camp.

Gucci Mane
Gucci Mane follows a familiar rap formula we've heard many times before.

Instead of forcing my way into a discussion of bands I haven't yet fully digested (hello, Neon Indian), I took a different tack. On various recommendations, I procured some of what the kids are calling "rap music," turned up my receiver, and sat back in an effort to appreciate the latest efforts from Kid Cudi and Gucci Mane.

My nuanced, thoughtful and stately analysis of the latter:

As an album, Gucci Mane's "The State vs. Radric Davis" is trash.

If it meant that Gucci Mane weren't allowed to release music ever again, I would go as far as allowing the older brother I never had to administer to my person 12 Indian Rope Burns, 17 Dutch Rubs, and maybe, just maybe, an Atomic Wedgie.

My dislike for the "The State" can be traced to the album's predictability. Mane employs every trick that has made me come to hate rap music over the past 20 years.

Misogyny? Check.

"I pimped that white girl like a m------------ hooker."

(As a bonus, it appears that there might have been some latent racism available as well.)

Clumsy descriptions of sexual methods and locations? Check.

"I'll take you to Six Flags and [edited] you on a roller coaster."

False bravado? Done. Over and over and over again.

(See every song.)

Ubiquitous references to marijuana? Obviously.

(There's even a song called "Kush Is My Cologne.")

References to self in the third person? Available.

(Is every other line sufficient?)

Dumb skits, interludes and meaningless conversations meant to show how "street" everyone is, even though the album was released by a major label (Warner Bros.)? Of course.

(There are three.)

"The State vs. Radric Davis" sounds like an album made by a 13-year-old who's been addled by daily hits from a pipe since he was 2. And I'm not referring to smoking -- whether of tobacco or of other substances. I mean that it sounds like someone has been hitting the person who made this album with a pipe for 11 years.

That said, I could imagine listening to a song or two en route to a bar. Once every six months or so.

But high art it is not.

Now that I've gotten all that vitriol out of my system, I can move on to the good news:

Kid Cudi's "Man on the Moon: The End of Day" is one of the best albums, of any genre, I've heard in months.

I don't want to dwell on the negative, because my objective as a music writer is to bring to light music that I think people will enjoy, not to point out the flaws in other pieces. But because Gucci Mane is so bad, the contrast between him and Kid Cudi becomes all the more evident. The lesson learned from Kid Cudi's debut is that rap music doesn't have to be childish, ignorant and potentially harmful to the health of young brains. Assuming, of course, that Kid Cudi is a rapper, which is a question to which I'd like to return in a few paragraphs.

But first, let us bathe in the sweet waters of positivity.

On "Man on the Moon," Kid Cudi (real name Scott Mescudi) presents the narrative arc of a man trying to understand himself -- his purpose, his past, and who, exactly, he is. Mescudi's is a lofty goal but, because he approaches the project with a level of humanity not often found on records of any sort -- let alone on hip-hop records -- he succeeds.

Kid Cudi
Kid Cudi isn't just a rapper, he's a singer-songwriter.

One of my problems with most rap/hip-hop albums is their inability to hold my attention for their breadth. (Breadths?) The aforementioned skits, interludes and crappy guest stars take me out of the, well, flow, and I never recover.

My attention span, or lack thereof, is not a problem on "Man on the Moon," even though the album is 15 songs long. There is no filler. Even the tracks that could be interpreted to be interludes, portrayed as they are as "Nightmares" in the protagonist's journey, work. In fact, they're some of the best songs on the record.

All this effusion was bubbling to my brain's surface even before Mescudi dropped a guest-star bomb on me. I was listening along, thinking, I'm so happy that I like this because if I bashed two rap artists in the same column, everyone would call me a racist for sure … Then I heard the unmistakable strains of RATATAT.

I thought,

Kid Cudi works with RATATAT!

You see, I really like RATATAT. As if the exclamation point didn't make that clear. And if Kid Cudi has the taste and intelligence to secure the participation of RATATAT on his album, I like him even more.

When I finished listening to "Man on the Moon" for the fourth time, I was jubilant. I had, once again, found rap music that I liked.

But something was eating at the edge of my consciousness. That something was this:

I'm not entirely sure Kid Cudi purveys rap music. I know he's black (ish?) and that his music is relatively monotonal. But as I listened to "Man On the Moon," over and over, I couldn't help but be struck with how much Mescudi sounds like …

A singer-songwriter.

I know what you're thinking, depending on who you are. If you were Kid Cudi, you'd say, "Oh brother, just when I was starting to get some credibility, some white dude calls me a singer-songwriter."

If you're a militant hip-hop fan who happens to love Kid Cudi, you're thinking, "Shirley, you're just trying to fit Kid Cudi into your tastes, instead of adapting your tastes to embrace music that you thought didn't exist."

To Mr. Mescudi, I would say … Don't worry about my judgment; no one actually reads these columns. They're a write-off for ESPN.

To Mr. Militant, I would say … No, I'm really not. I have no problem writing that I like rap music. I haven't done so very often of late because there hasn't been any worth writing about since 1993.

I kid. I had to write that just to see how many people would stop reading immediately after the "1993" to fire off an angry e-mail that contained epithets and suggestions that I listen to Common, Saul Williams and Atmosphere before I start shooting off at the keyboard.

My toe-dip into the tepid waters of classification is not meant to imply that Kid Cudi is a singer-songwriter in the vein of Jack Johnson. But plotted on a spectrum that runs from Pete Yorn to Mystikal, he's probably closer to Yorn than most would realize.

In case you don't believe me, check out "Sky Might Fall" here.

As I listened to "Man on the Moon," I couldn't help but compare Cudi to my favorite rapwriter/songrapper: Jamie T. Singsong delivery. Intelligent lyrics. Occasional admissions of weakness. The only difference being that Cudi is decidedly not from England.

In the end, I suppose, it doesn't matter …

Oh no. Here it comes: the part where I wrap things up and say that it doesn't matter how we classify Kid Cudi because good music is good music … [sound of me snoring as my head hits the fancy backlit keys on my laptop]

As I've finished this column, it has occurred to me that this will be posted the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I hate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I think it's a divisive holiday. Instead of celebrating an intelligent man who happened to be black, there are those (and they are many) who would have us celebrate MLK because he's a black man who happened to be intelligent.

I'm no great spokesman for race relations; many of the black men around whom I've spent time shared a seething dislike for me that had me checking my pockets to make sure I hadn't stolen something from them. As a result, I have my own built-in prejudices and idiosyncrasies.

I have learned this, however: The more time we spend trying to divide people up, the less progress is made.

So when I write that Kid Cudi isn't purely a rapper, don't think it's because I'm trying to co-opt him into a white world. Instead, listen to his album. Pay attention to the journey he takes the listener on: through his protagonist's confusion, despair, hope and insecurity; and finally, on the last song on the album, to an appropriately tenuous sense of 21st century self-actualization. That the song in question is probably about marijuana is not important, at least to me. What's important is that the album succeeds mightily, where others might have failed.

Give it a listen. Whether you're young, old, black, white, a fan of country or a fan of post-electronica jungle house dubstep, I think you'll find a way to relate to Kid Cudi. And a way for him to relate to you.

Then, when you're done, throw away all your Gucci Mane CDs. Because those shouldn't relate to anyone, white or black.

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.