Tracing the modern DNA of rap back to its original mutation, each proposed innovator can be found standing on the shoulder of a prior giant. Take Care, for example, refined the image of the kingpin for the “u up?” era, softening the genre’s sound while sharpening its self-pity, but Drake and Noah 40’s style evolved from the more lurching R&B of House Of Balloons. While the Weeknd’s industrial bedroom bangers converged the sounds of hip-hop and pop within the left-field, producers Illangelo and Doc McKinney owe their approach on the landmark mixtape to another landmark, 808s & Heartbreak. Kanye West tore the wallpaper off rap music to expose a bleeding, blipping center that fundamentally invented the entire next decade of melodic hip-hop subgenres, but even Ye crafted the style of his game-changing fourth studio album upon the influence of a young recluse from Cleveland, Ohio.
While Kanye West, the Weeknd and Drake are often touted as the major inspirations for much of the current senior class of contemporary hip-hop, Kid Cudi is the original progenitor of this family tree, offspringing everyone from Travis Scott (as both his namesake, idol, and bandmate) to the late Juice WRLD. His inventions are vast and entrenched in what rap music has become in the 21st century, earning his North Star status through his recasting of vulnerability as bravado, his plain-spoken portrayal of his demons and depression, and his penchant for high-concept cosmic sing-song. Yet, even as much of the hip-hop universe oriented around a style he helped cultivate, he has remained among the most distinctive voices of his generation, leaving for himself a singular and endlessly evolving trademark.
The Kid Cudi hum, already fully formed upon his major label arrival, had a seismic impact on hip-hop music. But even his most devout followers — a coalition that ranges from one-hit wonders like OG Maco to once-in-a-generation talents like Kendrick Lamar — have never replicated those thick, thrumming harmonies for themselves. Unlike the proliferation of bleary auto-tune or the triplet flow, there is no cheap imitation that has been mass-produced for the mainstream. Humming in rap began with and still belongs to Kid Cudi. When musicians have desired that sound for their own songs, they have either turned to the original source or explicitly labeled their attempt to recreate it as homage. Cudi himself has continued to build his sound around the instrument with increasing saturation across each of his subsequent solo albums. The vocal equivalent to Eddie Van Halen's inventive guitar stylings, the Kid Cudi hum is among the last great sounds in modern music to be instantly recognizable and inseparable from its originator.
Of course, humming generally is not unique to Kid Cudi. A primordial tool in the musician’s toolkit, you can draw a thread from the earliest humans using hums as prosocial signaling to a number of examples from across popular culture. Among the most iconic includes the Beatles’ closing passage on “Yesterday,” the “mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm” sound bite in Flo Rida’s “Get Low,” and the octave-jumping melisma on innumerable singles from R&B divas, such as Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera. In each case, however, the humming is used as an aside — akin to a vocal run — rather than a feature of the songwriting. Unlike the whistle, its more popular peer, the hum had only sporadically been used as a song’s hook or driving melody prior to Kid Cudi.
Previous generations of humming have more closely resembled the adlib, an accent that bridges the primary elements of a song and helps to define its mood. And like improvisational slang that soon becomes a recurring character in a rapper’s vernacular (think Pusha T’s “yugh” or Chance the Rapper’s “igh), the origin of Cudi hums were similarly humble: essentially a vocal warm-up stretched out in the opening moments of “The Prayer,” a fan-favorite off his debut mixtape A Kid Named Cudi. The rapper’s distinctive murmuring style did not materialize properly until Man on the Moon: The End of Day, announcing itself 30 seconds into “My World,” a moment that portended a sea change in how rappers thought to express themselves.
Man on the Moon was a game-changer for a number of musical choices, filled with melodic mumbling that predated mumble-rap and a hi-fi take on the emerging style of cloud rap. But it was with the humming that Cudi most profoundly communicated with his listeners. By the time he delivered his second major label effort and sequel album, Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager, the humming had become a core feature of his style, the sound which Cudi single-handedly owned and would endear him to a generation of hip-hop fans. Onward from there over seven additional studio albums and an assortment of singles, loosies, and features, the hum has developed its own lore.
It’s worth noting that within the canon of commonly heralded Cudi hums, there are many that aren’t technically hums, at least not under the most stringent definition of hums needing to be a sound emitted “from pressed lips.” This includes “The Prayer,” but also a number of more classic Cudi vocalizings, from the swelling harmonies in “Marijuana” to the buried grumbles on “The Rage.” Yet Cudi’s default vocal style — which is heavy on prolonged intonation, blurring the vowels between words and really sinking his teeth into the final consonant of the meter — already has more in common with singing than it does traditional rapping, and he slips in and out of the hum and his actual verses imperceptibly. All of it fits the broader definition of humming, of “giving forth a low continuous blend of sound,” which clearly encapsulates all manner of Cudi’s warbles.
Still, it’s with the more traditional kind of hum that Cudi has done his most signature work. He sets a stack of ascending runs parallel to a backwards MGMT sample to give Indicud’s “Immortal” its enormous hook; the titular chorus is set up to be shouted along with, but the hums are what actually make the listener feel like a superhero. “GHOST!” — an off-beat waltz from Man on the Moon II — substitutes for string instruments Cudi’s erratic wailing that hugs the track around its disorienting twists and turns. Cudi can fashion his hum to serve the role of just about any instrument — percussion, keyboards, woodwinds. The hums that announced last year’s one-off “Leader of the Delinquents” hit with the same oomph as a Just Blaze brass sample.
And while Cudi projects are rarely known for their restraint (this is an artist who dropped a 90-minute grunge album that he later referred back to as a “cry for help”), Cudi wields his hum with a skilled self-control. Cudi’s latest, December’s Man on the Moon III: The Chosen, shows how effortlessly he is able to fuse his hums into the music without relying on them as a crutch. “Tequila Shots” drops hums like any other syllable in his verses, counting rhythm rather than providing melody. On “Another Day,” the hums appear only to provide a tasteful coda that carries the song home. Elsewhere in his discography, you can hear the hum providing a gentle lift to already colorful tracks like “SATELLITE FLIGHT” and “Efflictim,” or providing background texture, as on “Frequency.” Where other artists will put the spotlight on the hum for their singles — Selena Gomez’s “A Sweeter Place” or Jaden Smith’s “On My Own,” as just a few examples — Cudi uses his instrument on his solo material more for mood lighting.
Yet when Cudi puts his full weight behind the hum, it can become absolutely transcendent. The pinnacle of Cudi’s hum work is found on 2016’s Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’. Fully unleashed, he bathes it in a glorious auto-tune glow on “Swim in the Light,” and does the equivalent of a riotous masturbatory guitar solo with his hums on “Surfin’.” The best moments come on “Rose Golden,” a collaboration with Willow Smith that is fueled by evocative stretches of humming that rise from both the low and mid-ends, punctuating his lyrics with bursts of emotion comparable to the uninhibited yelps of James Brown. Cudi’s duets have historically put his hum to its greatest effect, as when he most recently teamed up with another cultishly beloved melancholist on Man on the Moon III’s “Lovin’ Me.” Phoebe Bridgers put in the best showing of almost any Cudi co-star on trying out the hum for herself, trading tender quavers with Cudi to close out their anthemic lullaby.
That the Cudi hum is so inimitable gives it a sense of exclusivity akin to the streetwear brands the rapper routinely namechecks, speaking to his collaborators’ tastes in the most ostentatious way possible. The hum is Cudi’s iconography, a status symbol as much as it is a sound. So for many, a Cudi feature inevitably serves as the entire foundation in which the song is framed around, it’s raison d'être. On the Travis Scott epic “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD”, the hums are the defining element, overshadowing Stevie Wonder harmonica riffs and a James Blake soliloquy. Playboi Carti’s recent Whole Lotta Red built its longest track “M3tamorphosis” on the perpetual loop of a static Cudi hum. Across his career, Cudi is almost certainly the rapper who has been least called upon to actually rap.
Kanye, as much Cudi’s mentor as Cudi is his muse, has repeatedly drawn from the hum throughout his catalog since first redefining hip-hop with Cudi’s help. The result has been one of 21st century rap’s greatest creative partnerships, yielding many of Ye’s most inspired musical choices. Cudi’s sunburst vocal drew “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” into focus, a chorus of his hums brought “Waves” to a crescendo and a cutting room floor reference take ended up completing the heartsick “Guilt Trip.”
But the crown jewel in both Cudi’s history of humming and his collaborations with Kanye is “Reborn,” the standout from Kids See Ghosts. His incantation-like refrain has become the go-to standard for popular videos on YouTube like “Kid Cudi humming over thunderstorm for 9 minutes” and “Kid Cudi Humming for 5 minutes ( slow & reverb )”, a subgenre of feel-good cultural ephemera that sits within the larger internet phenomenon of ASMR videos and “lofi hip hop music - beats to relax/study to.” The fanfare around the hum that leads to comments such as “Cudi saved my life” and “If Cudi ain’t playing at my funeral, I ain’t dying” can lead to eyerolls from a certain sect of more critically discerning hip-hop heads, but it speaks to the way in which Cudi’s voice has become a bigger force than his music as a whole.
Among the many spaces Kid Cudi opened up for young rap artists, he pioneered building his image on his own anxiety, journeying a struggle with self love and acceptance that would become as much of a staple in rap as crime narratives and sex talk. Where his lyrics couldn’t always communicate the depth of his feelings (see: “grey clouds up above man / metaphor to my life man”, “I love the darkness yeah / I like to marry it”), the hums made up for the gap, drawing their resonance from a deep well of lived-through and internalized traumas.
Over the years, Cudi has revealed the scars on his mental health, while further letting followers in on his ongoing wounds. He’s discussed in interviews past emotional breakdowns, a previous addiction to antidepressant medication, and his long grappling with suicidal thoughts, which eventually led him to check himself into rehab, an announcement he shared over social media. Knowing what Cudi is navigating outside of his music allows his hums to convey as much as any actual speech, giving an urgency to the despair displayed on songs like “Internal Bleeding,” in addition to a resounding sense of triumph when he seemingly overcomes his demons, as he does on “Cudi Montage.”
Each hum can communicate an entire story in a short gradient of musical notes — swaggering through sorrow, equal parts resignation and resilience, as much party music as parting music. Cudi has said that his mission since “day one” has been to “help kids not feel alone and stop kids from committing suicide.” His openness in sharing his own experience in real time has allowed fans to follow along and root for the artist who helped them put words to their own inner conflicts, and when those words failed, a sound as a light leading forward.
Humans are among the only grounded species that sing. Our ability to express ourselves melodically is something that evolutionarily ties us to our less tethered planetary cohabitants, a fact not lost on Cudi. “Birds sing flying around, you never see them too long on the ground / You wanna be one of them,” he observed on “Mr. Rager,” a requiem for his own imagined demise. Cudi has had many close calls in his life that might have shut his voice down for good, which makes his continued humming a unique beacon, casting his shadow in the process of illuminating others. The sound once signified freedom from musical expectations and traditions, but has since gone on to embody something grander. Like the first orators before us, Cudi found a way to communicate through the intangible, making a space for listeners to project meaning where there was once emptiness.
Pranav Trewn is a general enthusiast and enthusiastic generalist, as well as a music writer from California who splits his time between recording Run The Jewels covers with his best friend and striving to become a regular at his local sandwich shop.
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