G.O.O.D. Music G.O.O.D. MusicCruel Summer
In this day and age, the idea of releasing an album as a letter of introduction for a label and its catalogue of artists doesn’t make much sense. Whilst they used to act as a sort of public launch pad for new rappers who were preparing their debuts and still didn’t have a following or much exposure—mixtapes didn’t used to be so popular and the internet wasn’t so present in our lives—nowadays their usefulness is debatable. In the case of G.O.O.D. Music, the label created by Kanye West in 2004, this feeling is even more accentuated: of the twelve artists the record company has on its payroll, only Cyhi Da Prynce has an official debut pending, although he has already released several mixtapes that have enjoyed a certain notoriety. The others –Common, John Legend, Mos Def, Kid Cudi, Big Sean, Pusha T and 2 Chainz, among others– have not only been heard a lot already, but we are also perfectly familiar with their careers, leaving little chance of a discovery or a surprise. So what sense does “Cruel Summer” make?
It seems that one might say that its mission is to position the label’s sound and creative philosophy as the spearhead of current North American hip hop. And this is what brings the album closest to “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”: in the idea of very long, evolving songs saturated with vocal collaborations. Furthermore in the idea of forming a large team of producers that collaborate closely in the creation of each song, a concept that is closer to brainstorming than to ordinary production. The latter became the leitmotiv of West’s last album, with songs that four or five beatmakers joined forces on at a time; to a certain extent Dr. Dre does this with his solo projects, although many times this help is never credited and doesn’t appear anywhere. He did it on “MBDTF”, on “Watch The Throne” and he’s done it again here: ‘Ye delegates to other minds, some of them sponsored by his own label (Hit-Boy, for example), and others from other areas (Hudson Mohawke), in a clear demonstration of creative astuteness that allows him to update, diversify, and enrich his discourse without giving up control over the whole process.
“Cruel Summer” isn’t a Kanye West album. And it runs the risk of being seen as one or seeming to be one in the public’s imagination. But even though the Chicago musician supervises or participates, however little it may be, on almost all of the productions on the album, its sound doesn’t belong to him the way his solo recordings do. One notices this particularly in the album’s dispersed, disconnected approach, where the inspired moments are brilliant and the moments that could be done without fail spectacularly. The first part, up to “The Morning”, contains the great finds among the contents: “To The World” is an anticlimactic opening track with an undefined structure and an epic vocation, with R. Kelly in top form and ‘Ye himself on a major ego kick and showing off. “Clique” would have fit right in with the best moments of “Watch The Throne”, with a new, lively, agile duet between Jay-Z and Kanye that is only sullied by the presence of a Big Sean, who seems to be settling more and more into his role as a limited Drake imitator. “New God Flow” is by far the best song on the whole album, the one that most intensely recovers the feeling of grandeur and the well-oiled machinery of ‘Ye’s imagination—the one that, in its own way, maintains the contact with the toughest faction of his followers. “The Morning” is another complex piece that has many similarities to “MBDTF”, and “Cold” is a solid attempt at a club hit that he walks away from unscathed in the company of DJ Khaled.
This is where the main flaws of the album, and in a sense, the project itself, start to appear: except for “Bliss”, Hudson Mohawke’s noteworthy 80s AOR contribution, the five remaining songs, more radio-bound and bordering on R&B, are weak in comparison with their predecessors, representing the side of the label that we could do without. But the problems with “Cruel Summer” don’t start and end with five mediocre, unnecessarily sugary productions. To that, we have to add the feeling that not all of the guests live up to the company’s expectations and needs –Big Sean, Cyhi Da Prince, 2 Chainz and Pusha T raise serious doubts about whether they should be on the label at all. Not to mention that the circus of names undermines the cohesion and unity of the album, and especially, that some of Kanye’s lyrics suffer from an absence of drama and conflict, two elements that are always present and latent in the episodes where the rapper and producer has reached his greatest lyrical heights. This is a less pressured, tormented Kanye, and that gives a feeling of lightness to the contents that often takes away from their strength. Contrary to what many had predicted, “Cruel Summer” isn’t a disaster, nor is it just a crazy sum of big stars: the four or five weighty songs that serve as a start-up save face for the project, and, above all, they make it clear that there is still plenty of fire in Mr. West’s tireless mind.