On Kid Cudi, Kanye West And The Heartless Response To Mental Illness

(Photos from left: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Harper's Bazaar,  Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

On Kid Cudi, Kanye West And The Heartless Response To Mental Illness

Don’t go to Los Angeles to fight your depression.

Published December 3, 2016

Don’t go to Los Angeles to fight your depression.

Don’t find yourself in The Standard Hotel with a deadline, staring at the ceiling.

Don’t review a Kid Cudi concert when your mood is off and might go fully left. When there is no space between you and your damage.

L.A. is full of homeless people. Walk down Flower. Turn on Wilshire Boulevard. Watch the frayed clothing and slow gait of homeless neighbors, living lives in public. On the street. They look broken. Many are in an endless conversation with imagined others.

“What’d you say to me, f*ggot?!” one of these men screamed, as I walked to a cafe. He was following two other men who were walking together. They were shocked, unfamiliar with the assailant hurling slurs, and obviously a little shook. I was shook. This street, in downtown L.A., was scary-full of people who no one looked at or acknowledged.

But I couldn’t ignore their illness. Mainly because it looked like a version of me in that hotel room, presiding over pot crumbs, wondering if I could write anything worthwhile when my heart kept sinking into the floor every time my lungs expanded. Muttering to myself some jumbled affirmations I did not believe. I couldn’t breathe, and I was here trying to write about a young musician exiled – temporarily – by the same anxiety I couldn’t seem to push past.

The way we ignore mental health is a sad joke on the collective psyche. Los Angeles, and all American cities really, are in on this joke. But abundant fitness centers and gyms suggest our undue emphasis on appearance and physical health has made us no happier. The Planets of Fitness multiply, but the outlook is the same. Mentally unstable people, zombied out and droning, surround us, sleeping on stone. They are us. I am one.

Our mental health vocabulary comes down to a litany of lewd and misused epithets: crazy, apeshit, weak, lame, spazz, pussy, and sometimes “emo.” It feels isolating. It feels like every time Kanye West speaks out of turn, confuses his mania for clarity, and he’s summarily dismissed, roundly dogged and mocked by his homeys, otherwise ignored, that I’m also under threat.  Watching him is like reliving my 2013, when I couldn’t get a grip on my own bipolar mania and got shut out by my friends and family. But Kanye is an icon, a black man struggling, and if people throw him in the trash for his health lapses, imagine what they’d do to a lesser known person, or to an ain’t-shit writer, one of the “diagnosed.”

Kid Cudi is an unassuming poster-child for mental health awareness now, and his plan to perform in Los Angeles, a bed of sin and temptation for a recovering addict and bipolar patient, first gave me pause. His dire open letter both confessed him as a suffering, unsure, self-harming artist and left the door open for a heroic, perhaps unreal comeback. Meanwhile, he’s been barely holding on to his reason for being.

Fans seem to need him at this one performance in Long Beach, to show him their faces and scream in support as he navigates a meltdown so common among rock stars it’s cliched, worn down to a Twitter rant and crisis management. I need him to show up, and to know that there is life in him, more as a comrade in Black men’s silent struggle against mental disease than as a writer.

Interviews at the Long Beach Convention Center

So I get to know the loyalists who came for Cudi, and the even larger crowd rooting for him

Allie was diagnosed with “everything” she told me.

“ADHD, OCD, anxiety. They said I had everything when I was young.”

She’s still young, but she means when she was in high school. And what Kid Cudi meant to her then fills her with wistful respect as she explains.

“When people talk about Kid Cudi, I always say I love the old stuff. Man On The Moon and all those songs. I don’t know I guess I can just relate to that stuff more. And it’s like, you almost never hear guys talking about stuff like that.”

Cudi’s connection to that peak nostalgia era for listeners, at the tender age of sophomore or junior, has earned him devotees, spiritual warriors who emote in his name. His fans don’t need him to play demi-god, but his meaning for them is crucial: he saves lives. Hearing their bursts of Cudi compassion reminds me I need saving.

Maybe because he functions as a totem of youthful angst and near-suicidal frustration like so many young artists, both famous and not. Like so many earnest prom night break-up poems. He is pop’s Catcher In The Rye, a teen icon persona writ large on Gucci billboards and magazine covers.

Although he’s an icon to one sect of people, how does he look to others? Especially after his Twitter outcry?

Cudi’s had to grow and mature in the spotlight, flitting from a TV series to the aforementioned billboards to Kanye’s muse, while issuing one emo hit after another. And at Complexcon, which trades in youth and hype, he’s not the biggest attraction.

On The Market Floor

The Complexcon experience is an adult playground. Every display is interactive and tactile. You can shoot baskets at Nike’s Air Force One stop. There are life-sized NBA bobble-head dolls, and James Harden’s beard-mohawk 8-footer has a line of selfie-artists near it. In the middle of this 2000-square-foot convention center is a pyramid of couch cushions. Leisure is a currency of this consumption; the brands come to you.

The women have nose gauges and “boxer braids.” They wear overalls, and look like mini-Aaliyahs re-imagined in Bait gear. The men have top braids or locs or braided twists, and peasant capris over foam sneakers, colored hair in Dad hats and thick beards. Lennon glasses everywhere. I don’t feel like I fit in here. This template of cool has bypassed me, and I wasn’t even really aware. So I scan the rest of the floor, the Re-Think High School yellow bus, the barber chair. A crowd of kids is swarming Takashi Murakami while a body man yells out ‘EVERYBODY STEP BACK.’ This is culture as commodity and I’m grossed out, much more sad at every new brand alarm attacking me, and sure that I’m in some way fueling this. So I go to the media room, the one promised sanctuary.

Dabier is Allie’s guest. (Or she’s his, it’s not clear.) He’s entered the media room chipper, as I’m contemplating the start of this essay, and the next joint I’ll roll. He keeps shifting around me and asks ‘Do you have the night time pass? For the night show? Or know how to get it?”

I do not have the pass he needs. So I turn to my topic, and ask if he’s here to see any of the artists on the bill. Looking for an opening here, because I’m a professional, nevermind that I’m in hiding because I ran into high school classmate who seems legit freaked out to see me in Long Beach.

About one person, Dabier is lucid:

“Kid Cudi is a face of this issue in a time when people are finally talking about it.”

“Yea,” Allie’s chimed in again. “But I wonder what it’s like for him to do a show, like, in rehab. I mean, that’s a lot of pressure.” I crunch the free Cheetos in my fingers while they continue.

What to think of the recent troubles weighing on Scott Mescudi and his hard-fought reputation? It’s his life imitating his art, they admit.

Then, the young women with “Cudi” shirts. I spot them in the crowd because they belong to a subset, an identifiable demo: Cudder loyalists.

“Are you all here to see Cudi? I’m doing a story on him and mental health...the first show--” and no more words can come out before:

“I’m here to support my favorite artist. He’s so brave right now I can’t believe he’s here.” A black pleated skirt, black lipstick and a black-on-white Cudi shirt reveal her as his aesthetic child, both muted and uniform.

“I hope he does show,” I offer, betraying heavy anxiety. “But what makes you a Kid Cudi fan?”

“It’s really what he talks about. You don’t see a lot of people able to go far into their thoughts like that. I know that’s not an easy thing.”

(Is mental health a cult? Are the people who are suffering from it creating codes to identify with each other, far from public terms, or the shame associated with being “crazy” and “weird”?)

I veer into the Drake feud, and more on their Twitter chatter, hoping this will help me relate to younger selves, more members of the secret society of people who need help. They lash out at Drake, take up for their man Cudi and it feels political. It’s like the popularity contest, for them, comes down to who can be most sincerely vulnerable. There is an easy winner, in their minds.

Travis Scott And Kid Cudi Take The Stage

Travis Scott is up first. He puts on a wild, energetic performance. He’s climbing stage props and moshing only two songs in, and the microphone tuning is the only thing keeping his warbling breaths smooth upon delivery. His set precedes Kid Cudi’s, and his presence underscores the life-saving need for brotherly compassion. The Texan ferociously defended Cudi after the Twitter outburst, and claimed him as an artistic mentor, a friend in distress. Travis Scott’s music is similarly wrenching, but isn’t chained to melancholy like Cudi’s moaning ballads. He’s the highs of rock star life, Cudi the lows. Neither of them lacks for sincerity, though. And their respective shows are a love-fest: two black men, who are major music stars, trading in platonic masculine affection, lifting each other up like it ain’t no thing.

My heart cavity swells hearing Travis’s constant call: “Can we show some motherfucking love for my MOTHERF*CKING BROTHER Kid Cudi, tonight y’all?” And I’m thinking “Yes, we CAN show some motherfucking love!” but I don’t say that unless everyone else is so loud I can’t be heard. Needing to feel love and connection is a funny thing, especially in a lonely place. I know I am not who this event is targeted to, and though I love the music and the culture involved, I am an outside observer, a clinician at that. My Jordan collection isn’t hype-beasty. It doesn’t feel cool. But Travis Scott invoking Kid Cudi’s name -- those two black men acknowledging each other, though one was hurt -- that felt like love. That felt like I could belong there.

Travis Scott inspires chants with today’s hits, and elates the crowd before our ominous stress can set in. The doubt clouds hang. Is Kid Cudi ok? Will he give us all of him? Is that ever enough?

I speak to a Danny, who claims to be an old friend of Cudi, and a drummer. He’s nervous Cudi won’t show.

“I don’t know, man, these things are pretty official. What time did it say he was supposed to go on, 8:45?”

“I think he’s at 9, but not sure.” It’s 8:39. We’re screaming over the din of music. We’re sharing our nervousness in the name of Cudi.

“I knew him 2008 and 2009 when things started really blowing up. It was nuts, man.”

This isn’t the “crazy” most people think of when they assign it to their rock stars: the rush of fame consuming them and all of their friends becoming new friends. Danny spoke of tour bus madness, of Cudi being generally happy on the outside, but always out-of-mind or out-of-body.

(Is this me? The gap between highs has been day-long, and the concert crowd is stifling near the front, so I want to numb. Knees stiffen from this work.)

While Danny recalls a time when he was backstage, I zone out. I see a kid in a shroud of pot smoke and wander near him for an interview that I hope will produce at least second-hand buzz. He doesn’t give his name, says he discovered Cudi in high school (a theme) and won’t sell anyone pot. So we just stand there and mouth lyrics from the DJ set until the house lights dim.

Love Stream

Not many things can rile a massive crowd like the sudden entrance of a lost star. The wave of noise that engulfs the building when Cudi arrives is part tired sigh, part throaty yelp. He has appeared, paradoxically, despite his mental illness and because of it. The legions of hurt people, like me, who see in him a model of what they’re facing quietly, have begun to speak up. This rising energy emboldens Cudi and he says, without pretense, he loves us.

“We love you Cudi!” is the next disembodied scream. One voice shouts what all souls think.

It occurs to me that I must live-stream this moment from my phone. That might be good reporting, for sure, but it would be better healing and I need to feel connected. I have detached from most of life to survive the trip to Los Angeles. I’ve set aside burdensome breaths, and all the insecurities, even as they preach their haunted message to me. I can’t sleep. But that doesn’t matter because people around me are feeling loved, and crying out. So I do too.

For one solid moment, we’ve escaped the stigma. No one is crazy. No one is uncool, alone. Cudi’s voice is labored and he forgets lyrics to his best songs. This is a party for his return, though, so no one’s keeping tabs either. As the live stream plays on my page, I see a surge. Five viewers is soon 20 viewers and then 200 viewers. All at once. The comments choke me up.

“Thank you so much for this!” “We love you Cudi” “Omg I can’t believe this? Is this real?” “Cudi you saved my life fr bro!”

My bootleg concert stream was a safe space. For a moment, I can forget that there is a crushing pall on my life, hatched to wipe out my existence from the inside. For a moment, I will myself to erase the Katt Williams episodes and the Kanye West episodes and the Kid Cudi episodes...when they became the “crazy” laughingstock. When the same public that anointed them great, cheers their self-destruction. For a moment, my confidence is high and not manic, and we are in a love embrace. For a moment, the music of Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar and Lauryn Hill is cathartic and real, not a buried reminder of troubled minds in our midst. For a moment, I can see and love even the angry, shouting man on the street. For a moment.

Kid Cudi has a lot to be proud of. He held thousands of minds and hearts in his stare, and allowed them to express through him what they couldn’t express on their own. I wish I could do the same.

But I don’t try, ‘cause you’d just call me crazy.

Written by Andrew Charles Ricketts

(Photos from left: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Harper's Bazaar, Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

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