Much like last summer’s Watch The Throne, G.O.O.D. Music’s posse record Cruel Summer is a Kanye West record, at least musically speaking. Like Watch The Throne, Cruel Summer is lined with the maximalist, detail-fixated production that basically comes synonymous with Kanye’s discography, and the record employs work from celebrated, critically beloved hitmakers like Hit-Boy, Noah “40” Shebib, Hudson Mohawke, and West himself. And, to West or whomever’s credit, the production on Cruel Summer never overreaches in the way that Watch The Throne might have (I love Watch The Throne, but you know, there’s some cringe-worthy stuff on there. “WHAT’S A GOD TO A KING?” That kind of thing). Everything — again, musically speaking, I’m not going to account for Kardashians today — orbits around West. The comparison he makes between himself and LeBron James on “New God Flow” — “Went from most hated to the champion god flow / I guess that’s a feeling only me and LeBron know” — is an apt one. Just by his association, West pulls everyone else on his team up.
And Cruel Summer, like those LeBron-led Cleveland Cavaliers teams, is pretty awesome to watch for a while, though the warning signs pop out almost immediately. It doesn’t take long to figure that out; the epic intro track “To The World” finds R. Kelly reaching back for one of his most memorable hooks ever (“Deuces minus one / Middle fingers in the air tonight,” Kels begins, and it gets better. He’s on fire with these hooks lately) before ceding the floor to Kanye, who sets the scene. But then, there’s this puzzling, tacked-on-sounding bit of singing by Teyana Taylor at the track’s close; I’ve got nothing against Teyana Taylor, but why is that there? Moving forward, that thought is momentarily brushed aside by the 2-3 punch of “Clique” and “Mercy,” two lean hits; the former yields one of Kanye’s most revealing, odd, funny, dark, utterly West-ian verses ever, and the latter, a syrup-drenched, swaggering thunderbolt of a posse cut, could easily be billed as the rap single of the summer (on which Kanye’s verse is probably the least memorable). The mean “New God Flow,” at least the leaked version, has an unfortunate outro which was basically amended by the new, Ghostface-featuring version that hit yesterday.
But, again, worrisome stuff keeps happening. When Raekwon shows up on “The Morning,” he lays such a thick layer of prowess on the proceedings that — relative to the surrounding crew of Big Sean, 2 Chainz, CyHi The Prince, Common’s adjacent verse that begins “I was born by a late chicken shack and a church / That mean the flow got wings and it come from the dirt” — he might as well as be a reincarnated Notorious B.I.G. stopping in for an unannounced guest appearance. We get pulled out of it by the adrenaline rush of the charging “Cold,” but that’s the last of that straight dope; shit gets messy fast after that.
And when I say messy, I mean to say that Cruel Summer completely falls off of a cliff once Kanye steps off the surface, and the record basically becomes that 19-63 Cleveland Cavs team from 2010-2011. G.O.O.D. Music hangers-on like Mase and CyHi murmur through their verses. “Sin City” takes all of the cheesy parts of Watch The Throne and siphons them into about two minutes, where a spoken-word Malik Yusef verse (“You are all unwelcome to Sin City /Yet the population still increases its density / And that increases its intensity / Which increases the propensity”) opens it up for CyHi The Prince, the worst rapper associated with G.O.O.D. Music. There’s a Kid Cudi solo track which Spin’s Brandon Soderberg pointed out is basically the same song as one of the songs from his WZRD side project. No rappers appear on the effective album closer “Bliss,” a duet between John Legend and Teyana Taylor.
As much as the first half symbolizes all of the upward pull and momentum Kanye can instill in a group project, the second half shows how feckless it can be without his firm grasp on the proceedings; outside of a lone verse on “The One,” which he produced, he’s basically absent. When Cruel Summer begins to slip, it falls hard. So, it’s fitting that the closer is G.O.O.D.’s lame remix of Keef’s “I Don’t Like,” itself a symbol of Kanye West’s more irritating tendencies. “Most rapper’s taste level ain’t at my waist level,” Kanye brags on “Mercy.” That’s true; compared to some, his tastes are downright astute. But, in the end, the humbling reality of Cruel Summer is that, while you might have all the talent, taste, and know-how in the world, you’re only going to go as far as your supporting cast will take you.
Cruel Summer is out 9/18 on Def Jam.