It's time to stop acting like G.O.O.D. Music's album isn't amazing.
Written by Matthew Trammell (@trmmll)
Let’s get right to it: Cruel Summer is the best rap album of 2012. From mixtapes to majors, no other release has been more exciting, more emphatic, or more fun to discuss. It’s all we’ve cared about since this fateful tweet last October, and it delivers on every expectation we could’ve had.
Sure, we spun the hell out of Ab-Soul’s Control System and even pretended like Rick Ross wasn’t spitting the exact same verse over and over just so we could tolerate being in the club. But come clean: Nas rapping about his daughter’s crazy prophylactics and Nicki Minaj singing about neon-colored spaceships simply doesn’t compare to the 13-track masterpiece with which the G.O.O.D Music camp blessed us mere mortals. Lyrically, musically, and artistically, Cruel Summeris a pièce de résistance for the 30-plus brilliant artists involved, whether it dropped in Summer or early Autumn. It’s OK to admit that you haven’t hit play on anything else since.
Nas rapping about his daughter’s crazy prophylactics and Nicki Minaj singing about neon-colored spaceships simply doesn’t compare to the masterpiece with which the G.O.O.D Music camp blessed us mere mortals.
If that intro seems a little intense, it’s because I had “To The World” playing on repeat while I wrote it. It’s easy to get amped up when R. Kelly is sending his vocal cords soaring over an instrumental that could have been the official theme song of the London Olympics. But the sentiment stands: Yeezy's "ghetto opera" is filled to the brim with airtight lyricism and colorful, speaker-eating production. Everyone is rapping their ass off here.
Big Sean delivers the biggest verse of his career on “Clique,” channeling a bit of Em and a bit of Hov to hopscotch across the words “villain,” “kneeling,” “feeling,” and “filling” before we realize the beat’s changed. Pusha literally sounds like he’s hocking up a loogie when he shouts “Fuck ’em Ye!” over the “Synthetic Substitution” break—“New God Flow” is the beat he’s been waiting to rhyme on. Not to mention, the man basically promised to catch a body for the team, complete with two gunshot sound effects for good measure. 2 Chainz' “Mercy” verse is already the stuff of legend and it hasn’t aged a day in the six months we’ve been catching up to his campaign. CyHi is an easy punchline, sure, but he’s rattling off some bars on “Sin City” that we wouldn’t be surprised to hear from 'Ye or Push: “A lot of niggas see they dreams in a glass pot/Until the judge throw you in that box and watch your ass rot.” Even M-A-Dollar Sign-E went off!
That’s the whole point, isn’t it? When Kanye is delivering some of the strongest verses he’s had since Late Registration, how do you not step your shit up? There’s his third-round knockout on “Clique” (“you know white people” is half-bar of the year and needs to get meme’d up ASAP), his thrilling Scarface climax on “Mercy” (the soundtrack to demanding $50 million with a straight face), his primal scream on “New God Flow” (the quiver in his voice sounds like he’s been holding in “we can’t get along” since ’92), his blistering arrogance on “Cold” (“shut the fuck up when you talk to me” isn’t a pun, it’s a demand with no irony intended), and his victory lap on “The One.” (Be advised that Michael Phelps has officially expanded hip-hop’s “Tyson, Jordan, Jackson” triumvirate, and who better to inaugurate him?)
And, of course, there’s the most controversial rap song of the year, the sound of Trunks fighting Frieza on 61st & Normal, the only song on which Kanye could compare himself to Jesus Christ and Michael Jackson within two bars. “I Don’t Like” is a track Kanye should have written himself: the spiteful, furious war cry of every young black man in America on his third strike, the only way to end an opera this tragic and beautiful.
But despite the cast of characters (and cameos: Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Jadakiss) and the rich script, the heart of Cruel Summerlies in the score. It was just a few short months ago that we were bewildered at that beat switch in the middle of “Mercy”—but that was child’s play compared to the twists and turns, sweeps and drops that coalesce on this white-knuckle roller-coaster of an album.
It’s 13 tracks that feel like 25. Of course, shit gets weird sometimes. That’s the cost of trying something different.
Producers as diverse as Hit-Boy, Mannie Fresh, Hudson Mohawke, Illmind and Young Chop (not to mention Travis Scott, the emerging 19-year-old rapper/producer who’s behind much of G.O.O.D’s grinding bass and choppy vocal samples) have dragged the best from all corners of the increasingly fragmented hip-hop soundscape: trap, soul, boom-bap, reggae and more all have a home on this album, often within the same song. Bass lines rattle at basement-level registers, chord changes wring emotion out of pained flows, and around every corner there’s a new melody or instrument or voice or song altogether. It’s 13 tracks that feel like 25.
Of course, shit gets weird sometimes. That’s the cost of trying something different. The-Dream’s sing-rapping may have been ill-advised. Malik's spoken word piece does sound a little mailed-in. But these hiccups don't truly detract from the whole. The raps are secondary on Cruel Summer, anyway. It's no wonder the high point is a duet between two singers.
On "Bliss,” Teyana Taylor and John Legend plead for each other over Hudson Mohawke’s glistening twist on ’80s Quiet Storm. It’s the best song on the album and a fine piece of contemporary R&B: a treasurable moment where the crew doesn’t bother to reiterate how good their music is—they simply demonstrate it.
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