“I am your big brother.”
Dressed simply in jeans, a white shirt split down to his sternum, and a blue jacket, Kid Cudi approached us lit from behind. The music for “The Frequency,” the first single from his upcoming album, began and then faltered. When it started again, Cudi danced forward, moving to the lip of the stage at the main arena stage, by Smirnoff, at the Long Beach Convention Center. He’s physically streamlined and it made every movement easily perceptible, like they were stiletto cut against the backlight. His limbs and joints seemed loose and easy, but his voice was unmistakably shaky. His humming sounded strained. In the early moments of his ComplexCon performance, his first since returning from rehab for suicidal thoughts and depression, big brother was stumbling.
Then he played “REVOFEV,” from Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager, the song that begins with a measured piano clop, steady guitar, and a martial drum beat. The one where he tells you, “I am your big brother.” Without having to explicitly address his mental health—there were rumors he would give a speech—without having to elaborate on the candid admission of vulnerability he shared on his Facebook in October, the song told the story. “I am happy today,” he sang and it sounded true; the audience roared. We chanted his name. One voice near the front must of caught his attention, and he responded mid-song: “What’s up, man? I love you.” It broke the flow of the song, but it didn't matter. (Later, he forgot the lyrics to "Up, Up & Way," touched by the reactions of his fans as he went into the crowd. The connection between Cudi and the audience was more important on Saturday night than any single song. Which is perhaps why the omission of "Day N Nite" from the setlist barely registered.)
“I’m overwhelmed,” he told us, four or five songs in. The outpouring of support from the audience was moving and constant and unabashed. “I gotta be big bro out here,” he told us in the face of all that love. “I gotta be big bro. I love y’all.”
What is a big brother? I try to be one. It’s often difficult, and I’m only responsible for one person. Scott Mescudi must feel responsible for hundreds of thousands. Burdened by his own struggles and the extra load of his fans, he must feel heavy all the time. Heavy, the way you hear the feeling in soul music. How remarkable, then, that he appeared so limber and buoyant in the presence of all those little brothers and sisters. When you worry about the example you set for another, when you push yourself to maintain a consistent level of care and concern for the needs of another—sometimes at the expense of your own needs—you may feel both exhausted and uplifted. The latter feeling chases the former, which is what keeps you upright during times when you might rather collapse.
Being a big brother also suggests a kind of decorum. Likely everyone in attendance on Saturday was waiting for Cudi to address the shots that Drake sent at him on “Two Birds, One Stone.” But he didn’t, further setting an example of how to be. Yes, he’s sent his fair share of antagonistic tweets, but those also arrived during what was presumably a time of mental distress for Cudi. Last night, he was positive, never petty. I doubt that anyone was thinking about Drake by the show’s midpoint.
“We can get through this shit,” he told the crowd not long after a charged performance of “Mr. Rager” (the songs from Man on the Moon II packed the biggest emotional punches). “I am living proof. I am living proof.” The fact is, he’s living proof of the tougher fact, too. Which is that you can be—and often are—fine without feeling happy. Many of us are, for much of our lives.
Happiness, like his song says, is a pursuit. It’s something you are constantly adjusting your charge at, rather than a state you arrive at and occupy indefinitely.
Big brother seemed happiest when Travis Scott joined him for a performance of “Way Back.” Even more amped than he was during his own set, Travis stormed the stage and told the DJ to run the beat back. Pharrell then joined for a rollicking performance of Cudi’s latest single “Surfin'” that rolled through the audience like a wave. Long after that energy had passed, and Skrillex’s stage came into view to end the first night of ComplexCon, Travis Scott’s words continued to reverberate. “This is my favorite artist of all time,” he said, during “Way Back.” “I grew up on this motherfucker.” It was easy to imagine everyone in the crowd feeling that way too.