Kanye West presents: “Cruel Summer”
Mac Hendrickson | Tuesday, September 25, 2012
For the pessimistic few whose too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen theories were proven wrong by the excellence of 2011’s “Watch the Throne,” GOOD Music’s 2012 collaborative effort “Cruel Summer” might be a better target. Though his presence on the album is ubiquitous, Kanye did not author this one alone, and it shows. The album lacks both the merit and cohesion of a solo West release. This is not to say the album is a failure. Viewed as a collection of solid rap songs, the album fares well. Tracks such as “Clique,” “New God Flow” and “Sin City” bump with a graceful coalescence of style and modernity. The GOOD Music crew knows what is going on in hip-hop everywhere, and though “Cruel Summer” sounds more like an imitation than a response the songs are proof that the GOOD Music crew won’t die as quickly as other hip-hop collectives.
Kanye fans are used to album releases being events, and the release of “Cruel Summer” was most decidedly uneventful. The consistently pushed-back release date built confusion rather than anticipation. The album was leaked, but no one seemed to care too much. The iTunes digital store didn’t feature the album until mid-release day, and physical copies didn’t appear in stores until days later. The album’s title is less of a misnomer than an indication of the weakness of its promotion. September is technically still summer, but no one is blasting “To the World” on the way to the beach.
In the strict sonic sphere, “Cruel Summer” is a success. The productions are consistently unique if not excellent. There is a general sense of cohesion if one pays as little attention as possible. Most tracks change and develop near the end, as Kanye productions tend to do. On a micro-scale, everything is impressive or at the very least acceptable.
Lyrically, the GOOD Music crew doesn’t bring much to the table. On the whole, that which isn’t awkward is uninteresting. R. Kelly’s impressive vocal performance in the album’s opener “To the World” is compromised by horrible lyricism. “The world is a couch / … I’m Rick James tonight.” It’s hard to allude to the almighty “Chappelle’s Show” with such strangeness, but R. Kelly pulls it off, and Kanye finishes the song with yet another bizarre reference to feces. He might want to talk to someone about that.
Big Sean is the album’s MVP. Ghostface Killah, Mase and Raekwon make worthwhile appearances. The intra-label rappers, i.e. Cyhi the Prynce, Pusha T, Kid Cudi, also contribute occasionally worthwhile rhymes. The best collection of lyricism is on the mid-album chill track “The Morning,” which features seven artists in less than five minutes. “Higher” features forgettable Timbaland-style production and a strange hook you’ll hope doesn’t get stuck in your head.
The album closes with “Don’t Like,” a track as artistically controversial as Jay-Z and Kanye’s “H.A.M.” “Don’t Like” is a remix of fellow windy city rapper Chief Keef’s underground hit of the same name. Despite the geographical relation between the two rappers, their styles could not be further apart within the genre. Keef’s music, part of the Chicago scene that favors heavy repetitive and southern-esque rawness, is for all intensive purposes a response to the late aughts’ educated rap scene. West’s refusal to be categorized as anything more specific than a great pop star has permeated his career, evidenced most by his brave but successful “808’s and Heartbreak.” Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that Kanye would extend his hand to some new-school jams, even if they didn’t sample Gil Scott Heron, and honestly, “Don’t Like” isn’t half bad.
Kanye brings his touch to the mix well without completely removing its essence. But ‘not half-bad’ isn’t what listeners have expected since 2003. Thus, though a few of these tracks will not be soon forgotten, three years from now the whole “Cruel Summer” concept won’t be remembered.
Rating: 3 Shamrocks of 5
Release Date: Sept. 14, 2012