Like bar mitzvahs and registering to vote, rappers owning and operating their own labels is a time-honored rite of passage. However, (discounting the Jay-Z and P. Diddy’s of the world) rarely is this a cocktail that gets mixed correctly. Most of the time, the only real money-spinners are the rappers who start the label and one or two successful protégés, e.g. Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj and Drake of Young Money, Rick Ross of Maybach Music, 50 Cent of G Unit. Which leads us to the formation of rap’s latest and greatest — a label so good, it could only be called G.O.O.D.
G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam
It all started on the seventh day, when the rap gods said, “Let there be a vehicle through which Kanye West can exhibit his chosen ones to the world, even if most of them are kind of mediocre.” And so Cruel Summer was born.
Technically, Cruel Summer is a collaborative compilation album by G.O.O.D. Music’s slightly above-average roster. In reality, this is an impersonal Kanye West album with a crap ton of features and a little less haute couture innovation.
Decreased swagger aside, everybody wins when an album begins with R. Kelly singing, “Deuces minus one, middle finger to the sky tonight / The whole world is a couch / Bitch, I’m Rick James tonight.” And in perfect pitch, no less. It’s easy to forget amongst all the closet adultery and trial-winning that Kells has pipes of gold. King of R&B, indeed. “To the World” is only made more immortal by Kanye’s scene-stealing the campaign rally: “Mitt Romney don’t pay no tax! Mitt Romney don’t pay no tax!” Safe to say Mitt Romney does not approve this message. But who cares if it ends up being the most disgusting moment of his possible presidency? The world is a couch, and R. Kelly is flipping off the world. It must be Tuesday.
Fortunately, West’s sonic genius makes this album sound banging on any form of heavily bass-equipped speakers. Unfortunately, West’s luminosity also casts most of his counterparts into the shadows. It may not be surprising, but it is a tad contrary to the whole “collaboration” aspect of the record. At G.O.O.D. Music, there is an “I” in “Team,” and it’s spelled K-a-n-y-e W-e-s-t.
That’s not to say there aren’t some contenders in the G.O.O.D crew. Pusha T is still the dopest dope dealer on the lineup (albeit the only one, but whatever). Chief Keef is a Chicago wunderkind who provides a welcome eye-of-the-tiger perspective on the whole tired Watch the Throne luxury rap shtick. And Teyana Taylor sings, so … yeah.
West may only rap on eight of the tracks, but Cruel Summer has Kanye written all over it — as it should. It’s his label after all. But you can’t help wondering what would have become of Cruel Summer if Old Uncle Yeezy stopped craning over the shoulders of legitimate talents like Pusha T and Chief Keef. Now, not to say Kanye’s presence is overbearing — there is no question he is one of the best producers of the last decade, and that this album would have been pedestrian at best without him.
’Ye continues to favor the underlying operatic choir samples á la “H.A.M.,” and hard, streamlined variations of “Niggas in Paris.” It works, but it doesn’t evoke any sense of real departure from Watch the Throne. So Cruel Summer isn’t a masterpiece, which the world has come to expect from Kanye West. Talk about some lofty expectations. Let’s cut him a break now, shall we? Step back: Is it really realistic to come up with a masterpiece if Big Sean is within a forty-mile radius of the recording booth?
Big Sean aside, there are some bright moments — nearly one half of the album is made up of singles, after all. “I Don’t Like” is flawlessly remixed from the original by Kanye, and Chief Keef manages to compress street-heavy themes into a single chant turned ultimate war cry: “That’s that shit I don’t like.” Kid Cudi shows up on “Creepers” and does something above average for the first time since 2009. “New God Flow” is a meaty, five-minute leviathan in which every verse is on point — aside from the military call-and-response ending. How come no one vetoed the “Hey Mickey” ending? And miraculously, “Clique” isn’t even ruined by Big Sean’s unintentionally goofy presence.
And so the theory is relegated to fact: Kanye’s collaboration albums are really just Kanye solo albums done at sixty-five-percent potential. It does take significant mental effort to remember that Cruel Summer is not truly a Kanye West album, despite the number of features and Michael Jackson references. Cruel Summer kinda proves that G.O.O.D. Music has some stars in its cache, but it mostly cements the already immutable: Kanye West is better than everyone else. And he knows it.