01. The Layperson’s Response
Cruel Summer, by Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music crew, is dense. Rap albums are frequently stuffed to the gills — overflowing with guest verses, producers (fresh and familiar), a mishmash of styles and moods, the club track, the radio hit, the street single, the one for the ladies, etc. — but this one is something else. How do I differentiate the somewhat interchangeable second-string members of the G.O.O.D. roster (Big Sean, CyHi The Prynce, 2 Chainz) from one another? What is the purpose of this album? Is it even an album?
It feels cohesive, for the most part, and concise in ways the majority of rap records are not. Twelve songs, five of them previously released in some form. The new songs slot well into the older ones; when “The Morning” transitions directly into “Cold,” momentum transforms what was initially underwhelming into something bloody and ferocious. Familiarity makes it easier for me to rock and bob along, to feel the groove.
I like it, although I wish the second half were as memorable as the first. I wish Kanye appeared on more tracks. “Don’t Like (Remix)” is great, but it’s not the most satisfying conclusion to the album. If only Cruel Summer closed with something more personal or emotional. These are my only reservations. It’s a good album, and it gets my blood pumping for sure. I mean, R. Kelly. I mean, Ma$e. Where has he been all these years since Harlem World? Is he still a pastor or something? How could I not enjoy this?
02. The Auteurist Essay
Cruel Summer is unmistakably a Kanye West album. It should be noted that he performs on just over half of the album’s songs — seven, the same number of production credits he receives. This caveat, once acknowledged, should be dismissed altogether. Anyone with even a passing familiarity to West would recognize the thematic hallmarks of his art: painful sincerity; appreciation for fine art, designers, and luxury brands; resentment of humanity, for the ignominious treatment of his musical idols, for the ignominious treatment of his race; defiant ownership of his self-professed exceptionalism, as a member of said race; his faith in Jesus Christ, if not Christianity (anti-materialist spirituality conflicting directly with his materialist desires for luxury goods); and love-cum-longing for his now deceased mother. In musical terms, Cruel Summer functions as a summation of West’s career to date: maximalist production, martial drums (clattering and multitracked), Euro-club sheen, pitch-shifted vocal snippets, dynamic use of empty space, pregnant pauses between beats, and the ruthless, artfully artless efficiency of his hooks that are Warholian, if not Duchampian, Pop Art, readymade — or perhaps, considering the focus on fashion, prêt-à-porter.
In the case of “Don’t Like (Remix),” the song itself is essentially the work of others, repurposed here with minor cosmetic changes made, in order to adapt to the Kanye West milieu, to Chief Keef and Young Chop’s production, which bears passing resemblance to horrorcore, to Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells,” to the mafioso fantasias made popular by West collaborator Rick Ross (and his frequent collaborator Lex Luger). The warped “whoa-oh-oh”s haunting the brief pauses in the track are clearly a Westian embellishment, as is the climactic inversion of the instrumental during Big Sean’s somewhat generic verse, the modified beat serving as a final sprint finishing off this intense jog of an album. It reappears more briefly during Jadakiss’ dénouement, the fierce, final verse of the album, by which point the listener’s attention span has most likely maxed out, been overloaded.
It’s curious that West would give away the last word to such a workman-like, veteran rapper such as Jadakiss, even more so considering his appearance on a track made popular by one of the youngest, most untested rappers who appears on Cruel Summer. It isn’t as if West has never offered conclusions from mouths of others; his use of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Comment #1” made for a startling, emotional ending to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In that instance, West was paying tribute to one of his seminal influences, an impulsive, angry, sometimes clumsy poet and truth-teller, a man who squandered his talents, who died not young, but early. Jadakiss is no Scott-Heron, and perhaps that is the point West is trying to make with Cruel Summer: it is more pop than art; it exists for mass consumption, not academic interpretation.
Whether or not consumption is the intent of the song, or the album as a whole, West employs his biography in ways that invite interpretation. His marathon, minute-and-a-half-long verse on “Clique” jumps from boasts about Kim Kardashian, to binary discussions of racial customs, to confessions of intoxicated misbehavior, to more boasts about globetrotting and material acquisitions, to further confessions of depression and suicidal thoughts, before concluding with an embrace of God/Yahweh/Jesus (and inferred requitance of his faith, in material terms). It’s a messy stream-of-consciousness composition, quintessentially Westian, in its awkwardness and tourettic compulsiveness.
All of West’s lyrical contributions to Cruel Summer are of similar quality, in terms of content and form. The sequencing of his appearances feels deliberate. By mentioning suicide on “Clique,” his references to suicide doors on “Mercy” take on added dimensions. This is a noun whose linguistic particularities West has clearly considered.
His verses, florid and emotional, overshadow those belonging to the other members of the G.O.O.D. Music family, and are matched (but never surpassed) only by honored guests Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Ma$e, and Jadakiss — four 90s holdovers, two Wu-Tang, two one-time Bad Boys, all New York artists whose styles are defined clearly enough that their presence signifies their purpose.
Even in its least indelible moments — the mechanical “Sin City,” which provides a spotlight for the moderate lyrical prowess of CyHi The Prynce; “Creepers,” a moody, self-conscious bit of self-help maxims reminiscent of the electro-emo style pioneered by West on 808s and Heartbreaks; and “Bliss,” a bland, sedative R&B interlude featuring West’s longtime friend John Legend and newcomer Teyana Taylor — Cruel Summer never feels like anything less than a survey course in Kanye West: rapper, producer, martyr, ideologue, raconteur, and mixed-media mogul. Whether any particular individual will appreciate Cruel Summer more (or less) than its direct predecessor, Watch the Throne, would depend on several variables, most crucially an individual’s appreciation for the superliminal, prosaic, yet technically precise writing of late-period Shawn Carter, who is just barely present here, and as a result, a claim can be made with some confidence that, regardless of ranking and rating, Cruel Summer is more unmitigatedly Westian than WTT, and therefore is more interesting, more worthy of close reading, analysis, and deconstruction.
Rating: Scores are immature and a distraction from generative discussion.
03. The (Indie) Rockist Mansplanation
Cruel Summer is kind of a mess. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of good shit on this record. “Clique,” “Mercy,” “New God Flow,” fucking “To The World” are all incredible, even with dudes like 2 Chainz and Big Sean on them. Pusha T is pretty cool, but I want the old Pusha T back, the Lord Willin’ Pusha T, the We Got It 4 Cheap volumes 1 and 2 Pusha T. As far as new T is concerned, his verses here are all better than the one on “I’m So Appalled,” but none are as good as the one from “Runaway.” Shit, nothing here is as good as “Runaway.”
Kanye doesn’t really experiment much here. It’s just rap, except for a couple songs that aren’t. And those ones just kind of suck. If I had to rank the tracks, I’d rank them like this:
01. “To The World” (R. Kelly’s intro is awesome, but still not as good as “Ignition (Remix)” or anything off 12 Play.)
02-04. (Tie). “Clique,” “Mercy,” “New God Flow”
06. “Don’t Like(Remix)” (I hate that I want to sing along with this one, but can’t because I’m worried that black people might hear me use the N-word.)
07. “The One” (Yeezy’s verse is good and so is the beat. If only that hook weren’t so corny and poppy.)
08. “Higher” (The-Dream is always great, and I need to remind myself to download more shit by Cocaine 80s before he becomes popular.)
09. “Sin City” (This one is pretty good; CyHi The Prynce actually doesn’t suck for once.)
10. “Creepers” (I’d have loved this one in college, but probably only during freshman year, when I was just getting into good music for the first time. Now I’m too embarrassed to admit to liking Kid Cudi.)
11. “The Morning” (Some reggae bullshit with Common. It’s not that bad to be honest, just really boring and uncool.)
12. “Bliss” (Just plain sucks.)
Cruel Summer is decent, but really fucking spotty. Some songs are just bad, no avoiding that fact. I’ll probably cut the songs without Kanye from my iTunes. It’ll be way better without John Legend or Kid Cudi.
04. A Fan’s Feelings
The sequencing is flawless, relentless to a point. The first four songs work as a singular, sustained, giddy high. There’s an energy that fuses these songs together, at least until Ghostface Killah’s verse on “New God Flow,” which is excellent but deflating, from a physical movement perspective. These songs make me want to move and sweat and move and sweat some more. The mood is propulsive, electric. Even the weakest rappers participating seem interested in keeping up with the front of the pack. Until “Higher,” there aren’t any criticisms to make that do not feel petty. Still, perhaps criticism is its own reward, to understand the activities we enjoy, the materials we ingest.
Pusha T’s verse on “Higher” hews a little too closely to his from “Runaway.” Rap is hardly immune from criticism of repetition and narrow focus, but those who love know better to generalize. We live for the minor mixtape variations, subtleties of tone, intertextuality, etc. Even still, this is clearly a retread. And T’s not the only one to blame. The beat-flip toward the end of “Mercy” is a little too similar to the one West employs towards the end of “Don’t Like (Remix).”
Thinking about repetition leads to a more critical place, one distant from sweaty physical desires. “Mercy, mercy me/ That Murcielago” were Kanye’s first words on his last proper album, and here the Mercy/Murci duality once again appears, several times over. There’s a sense that West is in something of a stopgap, a holding pattern, and that pattern is called Cruel Summer.
Kanye’s contributions are consistently first-rate, never less than emotionally engaging; the effort is present. Even his most obvious punchlines — “R. Kelly and the God of Rap/ Shitting on you/ Holy crap” — are delivered with more feeling than his proteges’ cleverest lines. Charisma is the difference, and CyHi the Prynce just doesn’t possess the same innate qualities that endear Kanye to his fans.
This could be said about any rap label compilation. MMG has Wale. Dipset had Freeky Zeeky. CyHi is preferable to both of those. At its worst, his presence is easily ignored. It’s a pleasure to hear Ma$e again. He’s not the most inventive writer, but he does well for himself here. Better than former labelmate Shyne’s botched comeback, that’s for sure. “Creepers” might not be a new career high for Kid Cudi, but it’s a solid return to form after his bewildering psych-rock detour. “Bliss” is the only song that doesn’t work; not that it’s bad by any means, it just doesn’t serve much of a purpose, other than as a feature for Teyana Taylor. It’s not like an established vocalist like John Legend needs the publicity.
Listening to the album cycle on repeat, you start to wonder whether Kanye keeps these ringers around because he’s insecure, afraid of being overshadowed. If so, it’s an unsubstantiated fear. Fans know that there’s no one else operating on this level, not just in rap, but in any genre. We’re just happy to have new material from him. The ends justify the means.
Rating: A perhaps too generous 4/5.
05. Metacritical Conclusions
Objectivity is impossible, let’s get that out of the way. There’s a certain amount of massaging that goes into the fitting of contradictory feelings and modes of thought into a single, unified score. But if any album deserves an awkwardly shoehorned score, it’s a lumpen collection like Cruel Summer.
There are commonalities, opinions to latch onto, that if not objectively true, are at least commonly accepted: CyHi the Prynce is boring, so is John Legend; Pusha T used to be less corny; whatever happened to Ma$e? Were this a Kanye West album, rather than one executive produced by him, it would no doubt be better. Regardless, he is accountable for the less than exemplary quality of the album. Maybe had the second half held up, there would be less disappointment, but the initial euphoria, undeniable, wears off eventually.
Eventually decisions must be made, an aggregate of feelings arranged and settled upon. Cruel Summer is half a classic and half a concession to mediocre talents. It could be much worse. Your mileage may vary.