Written by Paul Cantor (@PaulCantor)
It’s okay to admit that you don’t love Cruel Summer. I don’t love Cruel Summer. See? I just did it. Now go ahead, you try. I bet you feel better about yourself now, and you’re not alone in the universe on this. Yes, last week, Complex published a piece titled "It's Okay To Admit That You Love Cruel Summer" that declared the album nothing short of amazing. But there are actually plenty of people who don’t love this album. You know how you can tell? Nobody’s talking about this record. But they were.
Prior to its release, all eyes were on Kanye and his G.O.O.D. Music compatriots, wondering what they were cooking up, and what type of surprises their album might yield. Then the album leaked and we were all scratching our heads like, “Is this it?” Have you even listened to the album since that day? Probably not. You were just like, “Ah, this shit is kind of whatever,” and went back to listening to Danny Brown.
It’s not that Cruel Summer is bad. It’s just not amazing. Ultimately it’s a pretty— err, good?— record, but it’s certainly not My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or any other Kanye solo record for that matter, and it’s definitely not Watch The Throne. People talked about those albums for months. With ‘Ye at the helm, we’ve become accustomed to both him and the artists he’s affiliated with pushing the envelope both thematically and sonically. Think Common’s BE album, and what a return to form that was for the Chicago veteran. It was such a welcome departure from the material that had preceded it. (Electric Circus. WTF?) Topping yourself is difficult, but Cruel Summeris really far from whatever bar Kanye has set for himself and anyone he fucks with.
It’s not that 'Cruel Summer' is bad. It’s just not amazing.
To be fair, expectations for Cruel Summer need to be scaled back a bit. This is a compilation record, much in the same vein as the pair of albums Rick Ross has released with his Maybach Music crew, or something like what Lil Wayne tried to do with the We Are Young Money LP. Albums like this are a long-standing tradition in hip-hop, and nothing new. (Anyone listen to RZA Presents Wu-Tang Killabees: The Swarm, Vol. 1 lately? How about Dr. Dre Presents... The Aftermath? Or Ludacris Presents: Disturbing Tha Peace?) When you’re big enough in rap, and you’ve got a gang of collaborators and people you roll with— a crew, basically— you make a compilation album and put your boys on.
These are usually temporary placeholder albums, projects that occupy down time between when the major artist at the forefront has put out their last record and is gearing up to release another major one. And they should be received and judged, to a large degree, in that manner. Think of Cruel Summeras a mixtape that is being released like a proper LP. Certainly when compared to the promotional efforts that occur for a Kanye solo record, things have been scaled back exponentially. There’s a reason for that. This is a side project for ‘Ye.
Think of 'Cruel Summer' as a mixtape that is being released like a proper LP.
That doesn’t get Kanye off the hook, though. It’s like, you’re not even releasing a proper solo record and this compilation you’re presenting in the meantime isn’t really doing it. There are things that sound much better than that. Silence, for example.
At 12 songs deep, you get the sense that ‘Ye tried to keep Cruel Summer concise. Great albums need not be bloated affairs with 20 songs that nobody gives a fuck about and one hot single. A handful of these songs we’ve already been listening to— “New God Flow” (minus the Ghostface verse), “Cold,” “Mercy” and “Don’t Like (Remix)”— and while those cuts are certainly strong, the new ones are just... good. Good. Let that word sit there for a second. Think about what it means. It means not exactly exceptional and not bad either. If you had a scale of 1 to 10 on how to rank these tunes, they all fall somewhere on the better side of average, which is around a 6 or 7. Again, that’s good. Good!
Where the album falters is really in highlighting some of the lesser talents that Kanye’s got around him. I’m not exactly sure what Teyana Taylor is bringing to the table here other than an okay voice. Okay, in 2012, really doesn’t cut it. If you received “Bliss” as spam on Twitter you’d instantly block the whoever dared send you such a boring record.
Then there’s Kid Cudi’s contribution—“Creepers”— which has no place at all on this album. On its own accord, it’s one of the best songs on a Kid Cudi record. But on Cruel Summer, where its tacked on to the end, it just doesn’t gel at all. Everything else is bass-heavy, front and center, car parked in the middle of the hood type of music. Then here’s this guy Cudi coming out of left field, invoking visions of inner peace and shit like that.
Why someone like Cyhi the Prince has more verses on this record than Common is beyond comprehension. He even gets more bars on “The Morning,” one of the LP’s better songs, than 2 Chainz, arguably the best rapper working today. Cyhi’s a formidable lyricist, but still, how many of us got this album like, “Fuck, can’t wait to hear these Cyhi verses?” That’s right, nobody.
Why someone like Cyhi the Prince has more verses on this record than Common is beyond comprehension.
And I’m truly happy that ‘Ye was able to dig Ma$e up out of the music industry graveyard, but the former shiny suit man’s flow is out of place and dated on “Higher.” His straight 4/4 flow used to be so cute and charming when he was rhyming about horses and carriages. Now he’s all mealy-mouthed and talking about Loon and... who the fuck even cares anymore? This song definitely isn’t “Welcome Back.” Has anyone ever sounded so depressed about unretiring himself for umpteenth time?
Most of all Cruel Summer sounds, well, cruel. It’s not a warm-sounding project. It doesn’t invite the listener in with rich textures in the same way that many of Kanye’s previous projects have. The production is dense and multi-layered, at times experimental—“Sin City” is probably the most obvious example, while the Giorgio Moroder-inspired key change in “Mercy” is another—but it also sounds rather hollow. The melodies don’t go anywhere. There is no real climax. There’s no musical narrative here. It’s just sounds and raps.
While My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was often dark, brooding and progressive, it was still something of a beautiful take on anger. It sounded pleasant, even while being ferocious. And all the tracks gelled cohesively, as if they were cut by the same band in one recording session. Cruel Summeralmost sounds like there were 10 bands playing in separate rooms, and Kanye walked in on each of them for five minutes to lay a verse on whatever it was they were recording. Then he added some shit on top—the additional instrumentation—just to make it a “Kanye” project.
Unless you’re sleeping with Kim Kardashian and living the life of an international rap superstar, there’s a good chance Kanye is not rapping for you.
Conceptually, there’s also little to latch onto here. Kanye was once a guy who seemed like he was our voice— that regular person holding down a job, but who still had dreams and finally made it— he now seems to be completely immersed in rapping about himself. Unless you’re sleeping with Kim Kardashian and living the life of an international rap superstar, there’s a good chance Kanye is not rapping for you. And if he is rapping about you, he’s doing it to tell you, “Shut the fuck up, before I embarrass you.” Talib Kweli and Mos Def would not want to hang out with this Kanye. They probably wouldn’t want to listen to Cruel Summer either.
RELATED: The Complete History of G.O.O.D. Music
RELATED: Kanye West's 50 Best Beats for Other Artists
RELATED: 20 Celebrity Facebook Statuses That Use Cruel Summer Lyrics
RELATED: The 100 Best Kanye West Songs