G.O.O.D. Music - Cruel Summer
G.O.O.D. Music: 2012
The idea of a “Kanye West posse album” is a preposterous one. Since Kanye was signed as a rapper to Roc-A-Fella not for his rapping skills but because Dame and Jay wanted to keep their beatsman happy, he’s spent all his time yelling “Look at me!” and doing a Rob Van Dam pose. It’s his greatest character flaw, and also his greatest artistic asset. His insistence on talking about himself has allowed us to follow him from unappreciated Jay-Z lackey (“Big Brother”) to doing songs about being richer than his wildest dreams and being able to get hammered in Paris for no reason (“Niggas in Paris”). Imagine if Michael Jackson was as lyrically self-absorbed as Kanye; how crazy would his albums in the ‘90s have been?
So, it should surprise no one that G.O.O.D. Music’s Cruel Summer is basically a Kanye West album with a bunch of guest stars. It’s a testament to Kanye’s tabloid power that verses from Ghostface Killah (his best since Fishscale), Jay-Z, 2 Chainz (2 Chainz), Pusha T, and Ma$e (he is still alive, but his wages are garnished) are treated like nothing but excellent sideshows to the fact that Kanye is on this album, rapping about making soup with a sex tape phenom and considering suicide after his mom died. Kanye makes sure this is a Kanye West production, first and foremost, so expecting that Cruel Summer would allow us to see what Kanye sees when he pays CyHi Da Prynce’s airfare is foolhardy, to say the least (CyHi is still the worst in Kanye’s orbit; he gets bodied by a still half-buried Lazarus act from Ma$e in half as many plate appearances, for god’s sake).
But, here’s the thing; even a Kanye West album where he sits out four of 12 tracks and doesn’t always outshine his posse is guaranteed to hit a bunch of pleasure centers. The first half of Cruel Summer specializes in the kind of Event Rap that Kanye has cornered the market on; Rick Ross might stay scheming on one with Drake, Lil Wayne, Khaled and French Montana, but tell me another rapper who can send mass media into convulsions with just the list of performers on tracks. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
From the R. Kelly-featuring opener “To the World” to the midway point DJ Khaled-assisted “Cold,” Cruel Summer realizes the best of Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Friday series, where Kanye and his pals (and hangers-on) make rap that gobbles up bandwidth and radio airspace in a way that no rap album has accomplished this year. “Clique” would have been huge just for the fact that Jay and Kanye team up over a beat that builds to crescendos just like “Niggas in Paris,” but the fact that Big Sean (Big Sean!) delivers arguably his best verse to date (Kanye’s ability to squeeze impressive features from also-rans is his most underrated skill) makes it even more world-conquering. It doesn’t have a “great” hook, but neither does “Mercy” the other massive single from Cruel Summer (you can’t even play the uncut hook on the radio).
However, yet another Big Event single, “New God Flow,” is the album’s indisputable high point. Kanye brought back actually being in the studio together back to rap collabos, as he and Pusha T essentially have a conversation within their two verses, trading bars and references. It was a great track before it got a Ghostface verse, and now that it does, it’s hard to compose myself when talking about it. The “Don’t Like” remix is notable in this form because it’s technically the commercial debut of Chief Keef. It’s also still the public death of Jadakiss.
The main thing making this a Kanye West album, though, is how quickly the electricity of the album dies when he exits the proceedings. When you heard of Cruel Summer’s existence, did you eagerly anticipate “Higher,” a song that reduces The-Dream to a hook-bot to distract from a Ma$e verse? What about “Bliss,” a song that only features a great John Legend and an overmatched Teyana Taylor and no one else, or “Sin City,” a song that features a Dr. Seuss spoken word verse from Malik Yusef? There is an album “falling off” and there is this; this is like watching Mt. Everest fall into a bathtub. When the liquidly formless Kid Cudi solo joint (“Creepers”) is the best non-Kanye track, making you re-think your stance on Cudi all along, we’re in desolate territory.
So, in the end, Cruel Summer both lives up to and fails to live up to the pre-release hype. But that’s how it is when you’re on this level, and when you cede sections of your album to the likes of CyHi, Big Sean, and Teyana Taylor. But crew albums are generally a disappointing medium; try to name a classic rap crew album not released under the Wu-Tang Clan banner. But still, with its massive singles, its blown-out maximalism, its general attitude that nothing. will. top. this., Cruel Summer is a better group album than any of its competitors this year (Lords Never Worry, Self Made Vol. 2) by a wide margin.