We could trace Cruel Summer, the compilation record from Kanye West’s long-developing G.O.O.D. Music label, back to the posse cut “Mercy,” which came out in April of this year. Or we could look to G.O.O.D’s snowman-in-residence Pusha-T, who excitedly tweeted about new sessions in January. We could take it back to 2007 when West signed two then-unknowns, Kid Cudi and Big Sean, who later provided him with some commercial success. Or we could take it back to the label’s founding in 2004, when he took his first crack at fielding a home team with John Legend and Common. But however we tell the story of Cruel Summer, we have to acknowledge that, to this point in his career, the most transformative figure in the history of rap has inspired a legitimate alternative way for the form, while failing to share his captivating insight and magnetism with his contemporaries and protégés. Kanye may have influenced innumerable artists, but on Cruel Summer, G.O.O.D. Music, and throughout rap, he is a singular figure.
Kanye West reached an apex no rapper had ever achieved when he released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his universally acclaimed ode to the dark underbelly of his gilded life, in 2010. With his first two albums, The College Dropout and Late Registration, West arrived as an unmistakable voice; he combined heartfelt, impassioned windows into his worldview – that of a middle-class college dropout to whom the long-accepted gangsta status quo and requisite machismo was irrelevant – with a sense of humor that meshed his passion and charisma. Then came Graduation, which shook loose Kanye’s backpack-toting grin for shuttered glasses and stadium rap that dominated the airwaves and redefined rap’s pop possibilities. Kanye’s life and music changed dramatically after the death of his mother in 2007 and the end of his long-standing engagement in 2008, leading to the dark, auto-tuned 808’s and Heartbreak — an album clearly full of unprocessed pain where West’s defining ability to bring humor and clarity to the dramatic escaped him in his grief. In this period, Kanye’s behavior became more and more erratic; he was insulted by two presidents and drunkenly antagonized himself at the VMAs. Always an underdog, Ye’s impossible dreams of the good life morphed into defiant wariness and paranoid victimization at the hands the very audience he’d recently won over. He began imagining himself both as a crucified martyr – famously on the cover of Rolling Stone – and a hedonistic monster – in the deformed, violent promotional images for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. On “Jesus Walks,” he fashioned himself the preacher, but by MBDTF he had debauched even the angels. But while West’s self-image had changed, his voice and vision stayed uniquely affecting due to his ability to tell truths as lavish as they were unflattering.
It’s an illustrious and dramatic and – if you care about rap — important story. But it’s not the whole story, because, while painted an egomaniac, Kanye has dreamt of worthy cohorts for as long as he’s been typing in all-caps about the runway. Since he established it in 2004, Kanye has put real sweat into his G.O.O.D. Music label, a potential context for his singular and ascendant significance. And while the perception of Kanye West the egotist might suggest he’d be incapable of creating for anyone but himself, its hard to ignore the grade-A production Common squandered on Finding Forever, or the prime exposure Kanye gave Consequence on his early records. In fact, as far as investment goes, Kanye stands alone with the RZA and Tyler, the Creator as producer-labelheads hustling for the betterment of their crews. But no amount of high-profile features or Yeezy-branded beats could turn the artists Kanye signed into those he idolized. Cruel Summer juxtaposes Kanye with the stars he admires, and the prospects who are failing him; it lives and dies with his presence.
Kanye West has always flourished in rarified air, whether with Nas on Late Registration‘s “We Major”, or on last year’s decadent collaboration with Jay-Z, Watch The Throne. Cruel Summer opens with “To The World,” which, for the entirety its first two minutes, gives R. Kelly free range to roll out the red carpet with his ability to write long melodies that feel unified and yet not melismatic. And redundant as it may feel to hear a Kanye song proclaiming a commitment to “doing things my way”, the track’s starry pizzicato and indigo synths feel genuinely inspiring.
“To The World” beautifully sequences from the rooftop back into the party with the record’s biggest banger “Clique,” which features an uncredited appearance from the apocalyptic choir from“H.A.M.” Unfortunately the first voice we hear is Big “Finally Famous even though I’m only 23″ Sean, whose only smirk-inducing moments owe so much to Kanye that they’re probably on layaway. More so than any of Kanye’s protégés, Big Sean attempts to replicate the unabashed egotism that made Kanye infamous, but without any of the tongue-in-cheek irony and self-effacing humor that made him matter. But it’s easy enough to ignore Sean – who handles an undeservedly large percentage of the hooks on this record – since, in all likelihood, you’ll spend the first verse wrapping your head around how fucking dope the beat is. With two rappers as dexterous as Ye and Jay, it’d be a shame to pick a beat that was anything but enabling to their rhyming ability. Jay basically flexes nuts and treats the track like a jungle gym, and Kanye is devilishly witty and eclectic, dropping lines like “pass the refreshments, a cool, cool beverage/everything I do needs a news crew’s presence.” He’s always playful and self-aware – see his “let me finish” line – and hilariously unpredictable – George Tenet? What?
Cruel Summer feels front-loaded because Ye virtually disappears for the album’s second half. Tracks like “Higher” and “Creepers” would be filler on virtually any record, and hardly befit an album of this profile. Just to put it in context, Watch the Throne seemed to swing for the fences on every track; victories like “That’s My Bitch” were as phenomenal successes as tracks like “Made In America” or “Lift Off” were failures. Even a callisthenic like “Gotta Have It” carried the unmistakable germ of its makers’ greatness. So, once again, it’d be easy to allege — as some have — that Kanye’s self-obsession left his crew under-cultivated and searching for crumbs, but that underrates his ambition. In reality, Kanye knows his company reflects on him – they’re the friends he brought to the party, and even if he abandons them soon after arrival to blow lines off a Basquiat with the cool kids, he did his best to make sure they were well-dressed on arrival. “The Morning” gives the G.O.O.D. Music crew an honest chance at proving themselves on their own, but despite the presence of Raekwon, each of these rappers seem dull beyond Kanye’s glow. Their failures to keep a song afloat in Kanye’s absence is the whole story of this album.
It’s clear throughout Cruel Summer that Kanye alone shoulders the bulk of his vision. Cyhi the Prince is unremarkable. Common belongs on the Disney Channel at this point. Pusha T, while accomplished and talented, struggles to escape his serious-as-cancer coke rap wheelhouse; “they say Push don’t fit with the umbrella,” and maybe he doesn’t. Kid Cudi isn’t focused or ambitious enough to be anything more than the lonely stoner. Big Sean was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. “New God Flow”, a production marvel that flourishes during Kanye’s verses and reaches new heights with a feature from the real god MC, Ghostface Killah, is momentarily blighted by Pusha T’s well-intentioned but ultimately transparent foray into swagadoccio. Kanye’s best weapons — the venerable Q-Tip and talented dilettante Mos Def — are nowhere to be found. If it weren’t for the heroic beatmaking of Hit-Boy, this album’s failures might have actually scuffed Kanye’s reputation.
These sidekicks all fail for the same reason: for them, the high life is the object, but for Kanye, it’s the subject. Kanye West’s combination of humor and pain has illuminated his work since before “We Don’t Care.” Other posses succeeded because all members contributed to a central sensibility and ethos that made the whole greater that the sum of its parts. G.O.O.D. Music just obscures the greatness already there.