[GOOD Music / Def Jam, 2012]
Jeff Pearson, September 26, 2012
Once I got over the excitement of GOOD Music’s Cruel Summer finally being upon us, I only felt one thing. Call me crazy, but I felt actual panic. “How am I going to tag this? Should I tag the artist “GOOD Music?” What about “Kanye West?” Each song labeled according to who performs? That’s too many artists. Oh god. I’ll check Last.fm. Someone will know what to do. I need to get the most out of my scrobbling experience.” These thoughts actually went through my head. Thus is the life of an obsessive music listener in the twenty-first century. Luckily, I found dozens like me who were worried about the tags themselves, found a solution in just labeling the artist as GOOD Music, lamented over the fact that I mistakenly labeled them “G.O.O.D. Music,” got that corrected, and was finally in business. Now, to focus on what’s important. The music.
Kanye West has come a long way from Chicago Gap employee by day making soul-sampling beats by night to the too-many-Grammys-to-count, arena-rattling global superstar and label head that he is today. As his beats grew more mammoth in size, so too did the scope of his lyrics and, more importantly, the life they reflect; while his music has always been introspective and honest—his debut album, The College Dropout, was dealing with the life of a blip on the radar of hip-hop, just a man telling his story—the superstar lifestyle that Kanye now lives is what he has to talk about, and the nature of the music must now match the grandiose nature of the stories within it. I suppose it’s around this point that his—and many of his GOOD Music label-mates—lyrics get lost in translation with the average listener and come off as fantasy tales of an egotistical mind. However, they’re still introspective and honest. With Cruel Summer, the blip on the radar now is the radar, and it’s still just a man telling his story. It’s just now the story is a lot less relatable—unless you are, say, Tony Montana. Or Keyser Söze. Basically, you won’t relate unless you’re a movie character, and chances are none of you reading this are movie characters, so you won’t relate. It’s fun to pretend to, however.
This is made evident almost immediately into the record, where, no matter how much you might like the world, being a part of it, and even want to continue to inhabit it, guest vocalist R. Kelly has you putting your middle finger up directed towards it with the instantly memorable hook of “To The World.” Cruel Summer comes out of the gate fast and hard, with the first five or so songs each delivering punishing bass and some of Kanye’s fiercest verses to date. Though billed as a GOOD Music album, Cruel Summer is a showcase for the mastery that Kanye has developed in his lyrical flows over the years. Each track featuring him stands tall above the rest, and in actuality, those without him seem to suffer from lack of direction—perhaps his. The R&B-laced “To The World” starts the record off by spreading its arms and making its claim on the world before turning inward for the explosive “Clique.” The album’s only taste of The Throne, the combination of Kanye and Jay-Z, “Clique” is the most obvous of the GOOD Music posturing, showing the different emcees’ variations on a theme that is ever-present on Cruel Summer. It comes at a time when hip-hop’s collectives are seemingly everywhere, and “Clique” would be thought of as a war cry against them. The track starts off a run of three of the album’s singles, all rapid-fire maximalist efforts meant to showcase the best of the collective’s verses.
“Mercy,” with its dancehall chorus provided by Fuzzy Jones and chopped and screwed chant of collaborative greatness, is such a massive track that it will likely make up for its lost summer opportunity and become an autumnal anthem, destined to linger in our minds long enough to perhaps even resurrect itself next summer—its natural seasonal habitat. Big Sean is good enough, Pusha T is explosive, delivering his first verse that would earn him Best Actor In A Supporting Role, should there be such a Grammy category, and Kanye emerges into the arena surrounded by lasers, smoke and pulsing electronics reminiscent of his Graduation days. Only Kanye can deliver his ode to Italian sports cars, saying, “Let the suicide doors up / I threw suicides on the tour bus / I threw suicides on the private jet / You know what that mean, I’m fly to death,” with a fire and confidence that stand up in its honest intensity with his most humble work of the past.
Kanye isn’t the only hungry one on Cruel Summer, however. The veterans of the group spit verses like they truly have something to prove, and completely steal the show from those whom Cruel Summer is supposed to be their coming out party. Wu-Tang Clan elite Ghostface Killah and Raekwon deliver two of the most stunning verses on the entire album, on “New God Flow” and “The Morning,” respectively, while the aforementioned Pusha T, constantly trying to prove himself—post-Clipse days—shines on each track in which he is featured, and 2 Chainz, who is in constant celebration mode these days as he appears on virtually every hip-hop track made, entertains thoroughly as one of the group’s many unofficial members. The less proven members of GOOD Music seem to drop the ball throughout the record, perhaps taking for granted their new premier position in being heard, and songs like the Cyhi The Prince-led “Sin City” and the abysmal Kid Cudi cut, “Creepers,” disarm the record a bit of the cohesiveness that is built up in the volatile first half.
There are a few gems to be found in the second half, though. Marsha Ambrosius lends a classic hook to “The One,” a song in which Kanye does the one thing we have all been waiting for since he began his much-publicized courtship of reality star Kim Kardashian: he gives Scott Disick a shout-out. Fans of the show will immediately perk up at Lord Disick’s name, constantly rewinding the track just to make sure they heard it right. Sure enough, you did. Kanye says, “We on a galaxy that haters cannot visit / That’s my reality so get off my Scott Disick,” immediately calling to mind future episodes of Keeping Up With The Kardashians in which Scott walks with just a tad more swag, possibly even busting out his cane due to his newly found credibility in the hip-hop world. Aside from the shout-out, the track stands out as one of the best on Cruel Summer, the rare second-half hit along with album closer “I Don’t Like (Remix)” that buoys the record to remain listenable even after the singles have faded away.
Ultimately, Cruel Summer serves its purpose well. While not a classic hip-hop record by any means, there are undeniable classic tracks sprinkled throughout that make it worth revisiting multiple times. Kanye probably should have tightened the reins a bit on those tracks that don’t feature him, as they seem to meander without his direction; while his obvious hunger for delivering consistently paramount material rubs off on his song-mates on every track he graces, those tracks that he relinquishes the creative control to fall short. The only exception for this is “The Morning,” but the veteran presence of Common and Raekwon drive the performers to dig deeper. While I believe the purpose of Cruel Summer was not only to enter GOOD Music, as a whole, into the battle of hip-hop collectives, but also to establish those lesser-known names as forces to be reckoned with going forward, it did just the opposite. The up-and-comers of the group are no closer to being household names, while the veterans on the record have reestablished themselves as such. Kanye is probably okay with that, too.