This is #ViewingRoom, a column by OTTplay's critic Rahul Desai, on the intersections of pop culture and life. Here: Kid Cudi's Entergalactic.
This is 'Viewing Room', a column by OTTplay's critic Rahul Desai, on the intersections of pop culture and life.
Given the steady decline of the genre, it’s not surprising that the finest romantic comedy of the year is reluctant to call itself a film. The 92-minute Entergalactic is an ‘adult animated music television special’ created by American rapper Kid Cudi, as a visual companion piece to his new album of the same name. In other words, it’s a long-form piece of promotional content. Whatever its narrative identity, though, Entergalactic is a story. It’s a modern love story, and it’s a Black ambition story. It’s a New York story, and it’s an Artist story. It’s a story about reclaiming human touch in an age of touchscreens, and it’s a story of millennial ambition. Most of all, it’s a story about stories.
Entergalactic opens with a young Black man smoking weed on a terrace. Streetwear-clad Jabari is having a stoner dream, oblivious to the New York noise below. Someone’s yelling at him, but he is in his own world. The way he’s introduced, you expect Jabari to be a bits-and-pieces hustler who spends his days looking down on the city that looks down on him. Within seconds, that bubble bursts. The ‘someone’ yelling at him is actually the packer, who’s finished unloading Jabari’s stuff from the truck. Which implies that Jabari is in fact the latest tenant in this trendy Manhattan building. He’s no trespasser; he’s more top dog than underdog. He tips the packers handsomely. Their surprised reaction suggests that they expected Jabari to be a friend or relative of the actual resident. It’s the sort of moment that teases the mainstream perception of Black America. And, by extension, it challenges our notions of mainstream storytelling.
This is a recurring motif in Entergalactic. The cover keeps inviting judgment, but the book keeps defying it. The average viewer is made to feel a lot like those packers. The film normalises a world we aren’t conditioned to see. For instance, most movies might have waxed gritty about Jabari’s rise – his struggles in a racist hood, his slacker days, his adventures as a street artist, his frequent run-ins with the cops, and how heartbreak spurred him to success in a system dominated by sanitised White vision. But Entergalactic doesn’t feel the need to legitimise the colour of his journey. Jabari’s talent is taken for granted; he’s like any other up-and-comer in the Big Apple. So it opens with Jabari already on his metaphorical terrace, after having secured a contract with a major comic-book company. What’s more, his small circle includes a ‘token White character’: his drug dealer, Jimmy. The theme comes full circle when you consider that Jimmy is voiced by not some random kid, but Hollywood heartthrob Timothee Chalamet. In other words, Jabari has made it. The lens is his. He’s being paid big bucks to turn his cult murals into a franchise character. He isn’t a wastrel with a weed problem. His identity is rooted in who he is rather than what he looks like. Where he’s going is more consequential than where he comes from.
The film’s casual subversion is cemented by its analogue tone in a digital world. We see a dating app called Stush advertised across the city, but the paths of the central couple cross in an old-fashioned way: as next-door neighbours. She’s having a soiree, he rings her doorbell with every intention of being the grumpy party pooper, and sparks fly. Their official meet-cute happens at a greasy vegan diner. If anything, technology is the villain; the central conflict is triggered by a late-night text message. And Stush is reported to be a hotbed of credit-card scams. The girl Jabari starts seeing, Meadow, is, much like him, the purveyor of an antiquated – and fading – artform. She is a film photographer on the brink of fame. Together, they navigate the highs and lows of slow-burning love. The Kid Cudi soundtrack is their personality; the form is creative and poignant. By being animated, the film is essentially lamenting the cultural landscape of live-action storytelling. As if to say: The concept of a successful young Black couple in a modern romantic comedy is so rare that we have to literally conjure every frame out of thin air.
This applies to the narrative as well. The Jabari-Meadow love story is not the one that movies are usually made about. That would be the one between Jabari and his ex-girlfriend, Carmen, whose return feels like a whirlwind of familiarity. It is implied that Carmen was his decisive relationship; she was with him through his boyhood phase, they evolved together, and her exit probably changed him forever. Their story might have been furious and dramatic and beautiful and volatile and tragic, all the traits that cinema thrives on. Ditto for Meadow, who is shaped by a toxic ex-partner we only hear of. Both Jabari and Meadow find each other in the calm after the intergalactic storm, amidst the debris of their emotional earthquakes. They are now galaxies apart from the previous version of themselves: wounded but stronger, wary but wiser. Their life is almost too sorted.
On a personal level, Entergalactic gave me the perspective I didn’t know I needed. My partner and I have been together for nearly four years. We started like the sort of high-voltage fairytale that films trip on — falling in love despite being (with) other people in different cities, trusting our instincts, breaking hearts to unite, battling the guilt and turmoil of a long-distance arrangement, and moving in during a pandemic. The intensity of circumstances convinced us that ours was a life-altering romance. That we were, by far, the most influential partners of each other’s journeys. The stakes were high; we had to believe that. Even the fights cut deeper than ever before. But once life took over, a curious sense of dissonance set in. We were often struggling to reclaim our story. The restlessness gave way to lethargy. The language of settling threatened to disrupt the grammar of growing.
The conflict between Jabari and Meadow seems ordinary at first. She sees a message from his ex in the middle of the night. Instead of confronting him about it, she gives him the cold shoulder. She avoids him, hoping for them to fade away. If one looks beyond the silence, though, this void emerges from an inability to accept that the most important phase of their lives is over by the time they meet. The trials by fire are over. The big experiences are done. There’s not much left to discover, beyond the thrill of newness. It takes them a while to understand that finding a soulmate is sometimes as simple as rediscovering the agency to love. Being soulmates need not necessarily entail a history of earning — and defining — one another.
Watching them come to terms with this pushed me to realise that perhaps my partner and I were the destinations all along. Maybe our most important relationships were the ones that built us as lovers and broke us as people; the ones that flooded us with both the fear and the courage to take this leap of faith. For her, it might have been a boy from college. For me, it might have been a girl I shared an apartment with in my early twenties. We met them in a vintage world, but we met each other online in a vintage way — not through dating apps, but by making a mental image of one another from our articles. I had a strange dream about her based on her social media profile, the kind that makes you pine for someone without even knowing them. Months later, out of the blue, she commented on my screenshot from a series about a romantic psychopath (!) — and we didn’t look back. It was hope at first sight. Perhaps the fights cut deeper today because, deep inside, we are striving to confront the prospect of growing old together without growing up together. But being denied the pain of creating — and giving birth to — each other need not dilute the pleasure of adopting each other.
Ours may not be the life-altering romance we once thought it was. But it is, as we’ve learned recently, a life-affirming companionship. The difference is small but subtle: The former is shaped by the joy of imagining a life with one another, while the latter is tempered by the truth of being unable to imagine life without one another. The moment I take her presence for granted, I try to think of a world without her tomorrow. It’s inconceivable, leading to the kind of grief you feel for someone without even losing them. And that’s when I know that not knowing enough isn’t synonymous with not seeing enough.
The camera makes timeless stories out of Mia and Sebastian in La La Land, or Marianne and Connell in Normal People. But couples like us put the life in lifetime. We are the post-credits future: Mia’s husband seated with her at Seb’s jazz performance, or the fellow writer Connell might have inevitably dated in New York. We are what happens next — determined more by the meadowy permanence of lasting love than the hilly transience of a formative one. Most of all, we are the visual companion piece to a memorable album of the same name.