As far as vanity label collaborative albums go, you could find much worse specimens than Kanye West/G.O.O.D. Music’s Cruel Summer. That the LP ultimately falls short of its potential owes less to the talents of those involved than to the fact that the G.O.O.D. Music stable, and Kanye West in particular, has such an extraordinary surplus of potential as to make anything less than a classic seem disappointing by comparison.
As suggested by advance singles “Mercy,” “Clique” and “New God Flow,” Cruel Summer harbors some sizable ambitions. Its tracks tend toward baroque scale, with sonic bric-a-brac appearing on occasion in ambitious bids for experimental transcendence. The entire project smacks of West’s 2010 opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and at its best Cruel Summer feels like a collection of brilliant castoffs from that far superior effort. However, during the LP’s sizable doldrums, its borrowed style feels like it would have been better left to the cutting room floor.
Cruel Summer opens with more promise than almost any other release this summer (or fall, gulp)—solo or otherwise. Opening track “To the World” affects the brilliant pairing of West with fellow eccentric R. Kelly. The latter provides a majestic hook, which allows the former to summon the paranoid ferocity that underwrites his finest lyrical moments. When West snarls, “I’m just trying to protect my stack / Mitt Romney don’t pay no tax,” optimists can be excused for speculating that the album to follow will prove rich with similar lyrical gambits.
This optimism clings on throughout “Clique,” which features some of Big Sean’s finest work to date, and into the admirable frenzy of “Mercy,” but by the time “New God Flow” rolls around the magic has started to dissipate, and the LP never really regains it.
Pusha T, the most legitimate gangster on G.O.O.D.’s roster, chalks up entertaining verses throughout, but the combined efforts of G.O.O.D. Music’s grab bag of talent wind up sounding like a Kanye West album that Kanye West couldn’t be troubled to see through to completion.
“Creepers,” though a respectable showcase for Kid Cudi’s bounding style, makes almost no sense when sandwiched between Cruel Summer’s other specimens of decadent menace. “Sin City” manages to overload itself both in terms of production (chopped samples, synthesizers, found sounds, beat poetry) and vocals (John Legend, Travis Scott, Teyana Taylor, CyHi Da Prynce, Malik Yusef). The track sounds like the work of a true visionary who didn’t stick around long enough to see his ideas through to fruition, which is a pretty good synopsis of the album as a whole.
Between his work plotting G.O.O.D. Music’s ascendance, his tumultuous career as a fashion designer, his directorial pursuits, his relationship/brand alignment with Kim Kardashian and his upcoming solo LP, Kanye West has spread himself remarkably thin this year. And he’s not the only rapper who has this problem. Rick Ross has also kept his fingers planted in a half-dozen pies for the past six months and, as mentioned earlier, put out a collaborative album from his own musical holding company.
The difference between West and Ross’s efforts in this regard comes from Ross’s realization that a “meet the label” album doesn’t really have to be that good—it just has to give everyone a decent showcase, then step aside and make way for the more important releases.
In Cruel Summer lie the seeds of a classic LP, but, owing to the necessities of the form, not even Kanye West’s legendary perfectionism can make that potential shine through to the finished product.