Cruel Summer has finally arrived, and without a week to spare—the fall equinox is this Saturday. (I’m sure Kanye was aware that if he named the album “Cruel Fall,” nobody would take it seriously.) In reality, Cruel Summer landed in everyone’s iTunes last Wednesday night, just a few days before its official release. Now that the Internets have had less than a week to listen to the album, the reviews are flying in, and judging from my Twitter timeline, people have either been disappointed (an opinion brought forth by cynics/fake bloggers who are overvaluing their opinion to seem cool), or elated (felt by people who’d would buy three physical copies of Cruel Summer along with both the clean and dirty versions on iTunes, just because of Kanye). The median opinion has been a solid “meh.”
Every album review I’ve ever penned has followed the same style. I want them to read as if they were printed in Rolling Stone or the New York Times—they’re not just some track-by-track rundown or quick blog entry. I take album reviews seriously, and the tone of my reviews matches my attitude. I’ve decided to forgo that style for this review, because my album listening experience for Cruel Summer is unlike any other album I’ve tried to synthesize.
The only comparable experience to Cruel Summer is Kanye West’s last solo album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. This isn’t to say that the two are equals (they’re not), but that the manner in which I listened to them was similar. Before My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy came out in full, six of the album’s fourteen cuts were already released in some form or another thanks to G.O.O.D. Fridays, and the remainder of the album was previewed as a part of the “Runaway” soundtrack, which pre-dated the album’s release.
“Cold,” “Mercy,” “I Don’t Like,” “New God Flow,” and “Clique” all came out as singles before Cruel Summer leaked—that’s 5/12 of the album right there. Over the course of the past five months, we’ve had time to digest, and frankly get tired of, every single one of those songs. Music is so over-saturated, yet is consumed at such a frenetic pace—what’s new and hot today is literally forgotten tomorrow.
I wouldn’t be surprised if a decent percentage of Cruel Summer listeners are already through with listening to the album—not because it’s not good, but because they’ve simply moved on already. Given that nearly half of the album was given to us prior to the full leak,, it’s no surprise that the whole album feels old when it hasn’t even hit stores yet—”Cold,” “I Don’t Like,” “Mercy,” and “New God Flow” spent all summer getting played out. I don’t think people are disappointed with the album because it didn’t live up to their standards, because if the entire project was released at the same time, listeners would be losing their minds trying to process “Mercy” and “To The World” at once. Careful sequencing can give old singles new life on albums, but when four of the six opening tracks are singles, it makes them four easy skips to get to the fresh material.
I spent the better part of my weekend trying to focus in on the music, and not the context in which it was released. Overall, my listening experience wasn’t as special as it should’ve been, because nearly half the album is old to me. Given how much I’ve been anticipating Cruel Summer, it’s disappointing, but I didn’t want that to get in the way when placing judgement upon it.
What I uncovered was an outstanding group rap album. It’s important to remember that Cruel Summer was a collaborative effort. Kanye may have been ultimately calling all of the shots (he has production credits on 2/3 of the album), but it lacks that Kanye Factor, because it’s not purely a Kanye album. I can’t explain what that “Kanye Factor” is exactly, but anyone familiar with all of his albums knows what I mean. If I were to loosely define the Kanye Factor, I’d say that it’s a left-field quality that makes his albums sound different, and totally unlike anything else in hip-hop. It’s what makes them Kanye albums.
Hit-Boy contributed three tracks, and Hudson Mohawke of the EDM group TNGHT had credits on four. EDM has rapidly been infecting hip-hop and RnB, and just like on Watch The Throne, Kanye was able to tastefully incorporate elements of the genre into hip-hop productions, with the beat-switch during Kanye’s verse in “Mercy” being the best example. (Hudson Mohawke is from the UK, which explains why G.O.O.D. Music spent so much time recording in London.)
Cruel Summer, like the past three most notable posse albums (MMG’s Self Made Vol. 1 and 2, Young Money’s We Are Young Money, and DJ Khaled’s Kiss The Ring), is full of anthems, as opposed to songs that blend together to achieve an overarching theme. “To The World” features R. Kelly at his hilariously inappropriate best: “The whole world is a couch, bitch I’m Rick James tonight”; “Clique” makes it acceptable for any group of friends to roll deep into any spot, regardless of the capacity limit; “The One” may be a little corny, but it’s uplifting Sunday morning music. “Mercy,” “Cold,” and “I Don’t Like” remain as ignorant and special as ever. Religious concepts akin to “No Church In The Wild” were explored through “Sin City”‘s allusions to Sodom and Gomorrah: “We broke all the commandments.” “Higher” is hip-hop’s first attempt at Arabian twerk music—imagine Priya Rai or Princess Jasmine throwing it back at you to The-Dream’s verse.
Given the amount of placements everyone got, (Kanye had eight features, Pusha T had five, Big Sean had four, and 2 Chainz had three), it’s clear who Kanye thought was the best rapper in the Clique not named Kanye. (Side note: why CyHi had more features than Common is curious to say the least.) Pusha T delivered on every single verse, and rapped circles around Kanye overall, despite having three less opportunities to do so. That’s not a knock on Kanye—he wasn’t rapping at nearly his highest level, but that’s still better than 98% of rappers out there. Nobody was ever going to out-rap Pusha T on this album. He was that determined. His intensity, delivery, flow, and lyricism was unmatched.
The only solo song on Cruel Summer was Kid Cudi’s “Creepers.” It’s as genuine of a Kid Cudi song as he’s ever recorded. “Creepers” sounds like it should be on a future Man on the Moon album, but doesn’t sound like it could’ve been on the previous two, which is exciting for Kid Cudi fans. Cudi mixes in his classic sing-song flow with an aggressive delivery. One line in particular projects a certain confidence in how he feels about himself as a rapper: “If I had one wish it’d be to have more wishes—DUH / Fuck tryin’ to make it rhyme.” It’s a charismatic side to Kid Cudi that seldom shines, and he sounds totally comfortable with it. On an album full of massive, anthemic songs, Kid Cudi stayed true to himself and crafted the best track of them all.
Everyone has different expectations for albums. Anytime Kanye West’s name is attached to anything at all—whether it be a song, album, product, magazine, or movie—people expect the way more than what’s possible for mortals to attain. What’s made Kanye so special, is that for the better part of his career, he’s managed to exceed every expectation of what he can create. When he calls himself the “God of Rap” on “To The World” it’s not a boast—it’s just fact. Even the God of Rap, however, can’t stay Zeus-in’ it all the time. To his fans and critics, he’s cursed by unlimited potential. Cruel Summer might be the worst album he’s ever had his name on, but as far as group albums go, it has plenty to offer. As opposed to an album with emotional peaks and valleys, G.O.O.D. Music has delivered 12 songs to spend your Saturday night with. I’ll take that any season of the year. Just pretend like you never heard “Cold,” “Mercy,” “I Don’t Like,” “New God Flow,” and “Clique” before listening.
Cruel Summer earns 3 blunts, so twist one up and stomp on a couch like RICK JAMES TONIGHT.