While Cruel Summer appears much later into Kanye West’s headlining career, it’s hard to avoid comparisons to Jay-Z’s similar minded The Dynasty, released in 2000. Like that album, Cruel Summer aims to do what the G.O.O.D. Music brand has always aimed to do, which is promote all the artists Kanye’s aligned himself with by plastering his name all over it. And names are certainly plastered here. Aside from Mos Def, any vocal name you might have assumed was a G.O.O.D. signee presents themselves here, usually multiple times. Big Sean, Common, John Legend, Pusha T, The-Dream, 2 Chainz, Teyana Taylor, KiD CuDi and CyHi da Prynce all make appearances, with special guest appearances from DJ Khaled, Jadakiss, Ghostface Killah (adding a verse to the “Mighty Healthy”-sampling “New God Flow”), Ma$e (helloooooo, Ma$e!) and R. Kelly, among others. And that’s just the vocals. It’s hard to dedicate an introductory paragraph to name drops, but that’s what a lot of Cruel Summer appears to amount to, so let’s breakdown whose names appear many times on the production side: Hudson Mohawke, Travi$ Scott, Hit-Boy, Anthony Kilhoffer, Noah Goldstein, Lifted, Mike Dean, Twilite Tone and of course Kanye himself. In total, 19 names appear in this album’s production credits and just those 9 appear more than once (Kanye, of course, doubles second-best Kilhoffer’s four credits, with eight).
All of this is notable because throughout Cruel Summer‘s run time it consistently feels like a release that was dramatically slaved over for a primarily hip-hop LP, and yet truly doesn’t feel much disconnected from the typical hip-hop release. The sheer number of names that appear here seem determined to make you understand Cruel Summer is the biggest hip-hop album ever, when really it’s just another in a long line of headlining rappers’ attempts to make their friends mean something. The first half of this album is decidedly influenced by Atlanta’s perpetual trap movement, constantly flirting with pop concepts, as is Kanye and his collaborators’ wont, but eventually always settling into the same patterns we’ve come to know these past two summers. “Mercy”, undoubtedly Cruel Summer‘s most iconic track and single, boasts five of the names dropped above behind the boards and yet the track’s certainly not a decidedly divergent experience compared to the blog norm. In fact, it’s so often the tracks that boast the most name recognition - “The One” contains four vocals and six production credits - that end up seeming most regular.
Cruel Summer, from the very start and to its great credit, pretends to be nothing more than an experiment in grand hubris. “To the World” opens Cruel Summer with an R. Kelly and Teyana Taylor-themed chorus that promises middle fingers to every citizen on Earth and claims that world to be the couch upon which Dave Chappelle’s Rick James caricature jumps up and down. Stakes remain as high throughout its 54 minutes. If you’re the sort that loves to attach politics to their music, perhaps your focus ultimately lies on the album-ending “I Don’t Like Remix”, that much ballyhooed Chief Keef track which Kanye played around with and tossed to his friends in order to make a huge internet splash long before the 16-year old Keef was considered a true danger to society. Its appearance here is interesting both for its ignorance of the five tracks that came before it - all of which are doped up on R&B and uprising - and for Kanye’s apparent denial of what the song now represents to the mainstream. On a disc that features a track like “Sin City”, curated by a Chicago native who rapped specifically about his disappointment with Chicago’s crime problem on last year’s Watch the Throne (“Murder to Excellence”), it’s a perplexing inclusion. That said, in a vacuum it remains a highlight of the disc.
While it’s obvious that great pains were taken to make this album have some sense of flow - “The Morning” boasts four producers who had nothing to do with “Cold” (formerly leaked as “Theraflu”) and yet the tracks sound like siblings - it inevitably collapses under its own weight. It’s a label showcase, and that’s totally acceptable at this point in Kanye’s career, but that doesn’t make the transition from the de facto A side’s swagger rap to the de facto B side’s R&B aspirationalism any more palatable. Two tracks appear especially awkwardly, primarily “Sin City” (the other is “Bliss”, a John Legend and Teyana Taylor duet produced by Hudson Mohawke that feels like Dam-Funk stepped into the major leagues). While well-produced and well-intentioned, “Sin City” preaches to decency while surrounded by Kanye threatening to film murders on Youtube (or at the very least get a guy [Kris Humphries] fired from his job for marrying his girlfriend [Kim Kardashian] before they’d started dating); Pusha T consistently offering money and designer goods to women in exchange for infidelity; Big Sean bragging about his penis; and 2 Chainz playing at cartoonish drug dealer. None of those things are inherently negative in rap music - the more boundaries pushed the better, truthfully - but to sandwich this one incredibly boring song into the middle of it just feels like stretching concepts thin. Either Cruel Summer is a summer record come late, or it’s a hodgepodge of ideas struggling to become bigger than they are. My money’s on the latter.
Viewed through its singles (and cover art), the problem with Cruel Summer would most obviously be that it strongly desires to be Watch the Throne despite lacking the focus of two singular artists (Kanye and Jay-Z) hanging out in Paris hotel rooms drinking champagne all day. And as a panorama, it’s apparent that Cruel Summer will unintentionally draw sides between those who want to hear cool sounds and word play over thunderous trap 808s and those who want to hear R&B hooks about the woes of the world. So many cooks are in this kitchen that it ultimately lacks distinction, like a restaurant with so many options no one’s ever sure what they’re returning for. Cruel Summer is certainly an accomplished CD, and perhaps by sheer numbers can claim to be as massive as it assumes, but it’s mostly a disc that don’t have much unifying character other than “yea, this sounds as big as G.O.O.D. Music’s ego.”
Cruel Summer is an album that’s easy to criticize, but perhaps part of that comes from the lofty expectations Kanye’s placed on his projects since the beginning of G.O.O.D. Fridays in 2010. One would hope for the best of the many contact list posse cuts he’s been handing out over the years and/or hiding on his hard drives, but instead we mostly get the B roll. “To the World” is triumphant in ways that only an R. Kelly/Kanye West collaboration could be, but it’s bogged down a bit by sophomoric lyricism (R. Kelly is singularly focused on inciting worldwide bird flight, of the human middle finger variety) and Teyana Taylor’s breathy vocals. “Creepers” gives KiD CuDi the only non-Kanye solo track on the CD, and while very lush sounding and admirably egotistical it’s evident this was mainly because KiD CuDi has no place among the other artists on the roster. The track amounts to CuDi dancing around in the background of the “Mercy” video, awkwardly reminding us he hangs out with these much more interesting people. “Higher” is carried by The-Dream’s trademark preciousness overload, but Ma$e appears out of nowhere to drop this really goofy verse about his money and running into fellow former Bad Boy Loon for a debate on religion (“I bumped into Loon he like, ‘Well, as-salamu alaykum’ / You know I ain’t Muslim my nigga, I’m about my bacon”) that’s either the best or worst rapper moment on the album depending on your nostalgia for Harlem World. Most admirable certainly goes to Big Sean, though, who feels like a much more exciting presence surrounded by superstars than he has on his own Finally Famous releases.
Every track on this album has a flaw worth pointing out, but they all make an argument why they’re worth listening to as well. Inevitably, its mileage is going to be determined by listeners’ interest in the bit players, and the cartoonishly grandiose yet staunchly in-step-with-the-mainstream music that backs them up. It’s an album you’ve ultimately got to hear if post-808s & Heartbreaks-Kanye West registers as one of the most exciting elements in pop music, but if you’re sour on him or uninterested in his disciples there’s little here to look forward to, with seven of the 12 tracks carrying some baggage in plain sight and at least six of them having been released on Ye’s twitter months prior to the album’s release anyway. Combined with everything that’s fallen under the G.O.O.D. Friday umbrella over the past two years, its hard not to argue a more cohesive and user-generated showcase for the label might just exist out there for free.