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WZRD, ‘WZRD’ (Wicked Awesome/HeadBanga/Universal Republic)

Kid Cudi
SPIN Rating: 4 of 10
Release Date: February 28, 2012
Label: Wicked Awesome/HeadBanga/Universal Republic

WZRD is Kid Cudi and “Day ‘N’ Nite” producer Dot da Genius’ so-called “alternative rock” project. While that term signified something during the indie/collegiate/grunge takeover of the 1990s, it eventually came to represent little more than a middling, moderately heavy, hook-laden soundtrack for suburban kids who didn’t have the resources yet to escape their city’s crappy, conservative radio playlists. In other words, it’s a term used advisedly.

Yes, there are guitars and programmed approximations of live drums on WZRD, and sometimes Cudi lets out a mall-punk guffaw (“Love Hard”) or adds a little grit to his voice (“Dr. Pill”), but the album is so obsessively EQ’d and “perfected” that every song arrives with all the life sucked out of it. Even comparing this to Lil Wayne’s disastrous Rebirth doesn’t really track, because Wayne’s Hot Topic rawk was at least ballsy in its terrible-ness, whereas this one only gets truly awful if you dig in and pay attention. The songs here try to “rock” without actually making the effort to rock.

Cudi’s success often hinges on his flaws and vulnerabilities — off-key vocals, seemingly improvised lyrics, half-baked rapping — which, when paired with an impeccable taste in production, transform his navel-gazing, absurdly emo lyrics (“A happy ending would be slitting my throat”) into compelling, skewed pop. His 2009 debut, Man on the Moon: The End of Day, had the minimalist bleep-bloop of “Day ‘N’ Nite” and thrilling collaborations with Neptunes-on-a-budget synth freaks Ratatat; 2010’s Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager framed its fame-fretting with after-party freak beats from Jim Jonsin, No I.D., etc.

But that delicate balance of good-then-bad-then-good-again ideas and taste appears rarely on WZRD: “Teleport 2 Me, Jamie” samples Desire’s “Under Your Spell” (from the Drive soundtrack), as Cudi croons about missing his girlfriend and wanting her to “teleport” to him, merging his sad-rap sensitivity and stoner sci-fi weirdness into something touching and affecting. Paired with the melancholy sample, his voice wraps this low-stakes love song of study halls and airports around the existential longing of Nicolas Winding Refn’s tough-guy fairy tale. It’s a moving and very much of-the-moment song. Similarly affecting vocal performances are enough to put across the cheap highs of Leadbelly-via-Nirvana cover “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” and the Smashing Pumpkins-aping pseudo-suicide-note ballad “Efflictim.”

That trio is the record’s highlight, in part because there seems to be something at stake, but mostly because those songs don’t really attempt to code as “rock” music. Why, of all the producers that Cudi’s worked with, would the guy responsible for “Day ‘N’ Nite” get the nod for a rock collabo? Probably because Dot da Genius was the only one who agreed to try. Wandering aimlessly between genres is apparently unavoidable for a hip-hop artist with an artsy chip on his shoulder. But after enduring WZRD’s remarkably bland riffs and monotone, Wesley Willis vocals, one starts to think that maybe Mos Def’s mid-2000s rap-rock-jazz-psych-blues fusions The New Danger and Tru3 Magic weren’t all that bad; or that even Andre 3000’s ridiculous quasi-Squarepusher cover of “My Favorite Things” would be preferable to most of this mediocre guitar crunch. And since Cudi began his career by mixing rap, R&B, and indie rock, this gross misreading of alt-rock is even more unnecessary.

Typically, on the Tuesday that WZRD was released, Cudi took to Twitter to promote the album, stir up drama, and turn himself into gossip-blog fodder. He apologized to fans who, according to him, would have a hard time finding the record in stores because his label, Universal Republic, hadn’t handled its distribution properly. “Ok so just a heads up,” he Tweeted. “My weak ass label only shipped 55k physical cuz they treated this like some indie side project tax right off.” He should be happy they released it at all.