In a rap music environment rife with bravado, ambition, and sensationalism Kanye West is a man apart. He recently argued that he “makes perfect music” and instead of getting the reaction that other artists might have elicited (i.e. “is this guy serious?”) most people simply wondered why he hadn’t made the remark earlier. His egoism is now his most defining feature but, to his credit, the early stages of his career were marked by his tenacity, heart, and innate talent as a producer. He was adept at flipping samples (see “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” and “Down and Out”) and his lyricism was aimed more toward emotional resonance than shock value. While other rappers might have been content to drop a few Late Registrations, marry an R&B star, and call it a day, Kanye had no such plans. He transformed into a hyper-narcissistic fame monster that makes music for the drunken masses. His quaint boom-bap beats soon became auteurist manifestos that were derided as much as they were embraced as scripture. In his own words, he became the “god of rap.”
The issue is that a lot of the music on Cruel Summer isn’t particularly good. In this case, however, it is only slightly Kanye’s fault that the project is a disappointment. A collaboration with his G.O.O.D Music affiliates as well as a few guest spots, Cruel Summer is Kanye’s first proper crew album. Along with the inner circle of Big Sean, 2 Chainz, and Pusha T, the album also features Ghostface, Jay-Z, R. Kelly, Jadakiss, Cyhi The Prynce, Kid Cudi, Chief Keef, Raekwon, The-Dream, Ma$e, Common, John Legend and (believe it or not) a few others. Most tracks mix and match these rappers at will, resulting in an onslaught of MC’s that all hope to demonstrate why they should be included on a Kanye album. Some are more successful than others (more below) but the overall effect is exasperating, to say the least. The beats are a similarly collaborative effort. Kanye played a role in most of the production but he also lent the reins to Hit-Boy (“Clique,” “Cold,” and “Higher), Hudson Mohawke (“To the World,” “The One,” and “Bliss”), and a number of other producers. Based on this massive list of collaborators one should understand that this is not a Kanye West album. Rather, it is a showcase of the cohort that he has amassed; and what a strange and uneven cohort it is.
Cruel Summer reminds me of the firework debacle that transpired this Independence Day in San Diego. A computer malfunction made all of the fireworks launch at once, which resulted in a 15 minute show being shortened to 15 seconds. The first four tracks of the album are like that 15 seconds. Explosive, vibrant, and energetic, the opening string of singles play out with a mixture of gusto and earth-shattering bass. The rest of the album, however, is spent wondering when the fireworks are gonna return. There are a few notable moments (“Higher” has an eery allure and “The One”’s beat is an interesting mix of soul and grit) but the latter half of the album mostly crumbles under the weight of mediocre verses and disorganization.
Buoyed by R. Kelly’s charisma and Kanye’s playful verse, “To the World” is a bright and celebratory opener. Hudson Mohawke’s quirky flourishes made their way onto a beat that is otherwise an ornate version of a snapping, southern banger. Pianos and strings abound for the first half, but as Kanye makes his entrance the instrumentation peels away. His reference heavy verses are a trademark at this point and this one doesn’t break the mold. He riffs on Francis Ford-Coppola’s name, notes that Mitt Romney don’t pay no tax, and generally drops playful lines that ensure the listener will feel like he or she is in on the joke (e.g. “only nigga in Beverly Hills, where the hell is Axle Foley at”). The momentum continues with “Clique,” although the beat carries the track more so than the verses. Big Sean has buckets of personality but he has a one-note style that gets tired quickly. Jay-Z’s verse is more interesting, cadence wise, but it still lacks the kind of mastery that one would expect from such a seasoned veteran. Still, it’s a forceful track that keeps the energy at peak levels going into the coup de grace of the album.
“Mercy”’s beat is just plain massive. When the song stops playing you forget anybody was even rapping. All that you remember is the gargantuan bass drop, the earworm of a piano refrain, and the fact that someone mentioned a lambo. These are the conditions within which 2 Chainz is palatable. Songs like “Spend it” and “No Lie” work because the beat is so filthy that it’s not all that consequential whether the rap is well executed or not. Some call that the denigration of rap, and I tend to agree, but playing “Mercy” through large speakers is a hell of a counter-argument. “New God Flow” works well when played loud as well, but it also tries to establish itself as a showcase of lyricism. Pusha T (who now sounds oddly like Kanye) tries to revive some of the Clipse, coke-rap spirit that made him so successful to begin with. But his technical prowess has nearly vanished and all mentioning coke does is remind people of how good Hell Hath No Fury was. Kanye has some nice moments of self-reflection (which are only noticeable because the rest is classic arrogance) but Ghostface steals the show without even really trying. Like a verse from his Pretty Toney days, the lines are multi-layered and spit with pinpoint precision. Raekwon’s verse on the next track is in a similar vein; but from there on the album doesn’t have much to hold on to.
“Sin City”’s lack of focus is indicative of the album’s shortcomings. Every artist seems to be trying to mark their own mark on the song. Instead of playing off of one another’s strengths, “Sin City” sounds like a scramble for attention. A crew album isn’t necessarily supposed to be cohesive but it should at least show what each member of the posse is capable of. “The Morning” makes clear that Cyhi The Prynce is little more than a unique voice; Big Sean doesn’t drop the kind of show-stopping verse that everyone has been expecting from him; and 2 Chainz’s verse on “The One” is an example of why he is at his best when it’s hard to hear what he’s saying. Oddly enough, the most interesting guest spots come from veterans that don’t have anything to prove. Ma$e ends “Higher” on a strangely excellent note and Jadakiss’ unmistakable growl closes out the album with an exclamation point. There are some glimmers of excellence throughout the latter half of the album but they are few and far between; and they don’t come nearly enough from the G.O.O.D. Music collective.
With Cruel Summer on repeat sometimes you might even forget that Kanye West is one of the main contributors. He seems to be in the backseat, as he lets his understudies build off of some of his momentum. Unfortunately, they don’t always come through with the kind of rigor that one might expect from the affiliates of Mr. West. Indeed, Kanye’s solo projects, whatever you think of their musical merits, are always aggressively focused and fully fleshed out in every detail. Cruel Summer strays from that template. It delivers some blistering singles but it is ultimately uneven. The artists featured all have something to offer on their own, but as they scramble a top one another a sense of any group dynamic is lost in the fray. They tried to make a crew album but forgot the crew part. [B-]