The party line on Cruel Summer, the label compilation from Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint, is that it shouldn’t be mistaken for a proper Kanye West album. While it’s true that Kanye has strived to minimize his presence here both on the album itself and in the promotion of the thing, Cruel Summer, like 2011’s Kanye/Jay-Z collaborative album Watch the Throne before it, bears all the telltale signs of a 2010s Kanye West production: winding songs, intricate beats, and a football team’s worth of collaborators. So while Cruel Summer is ostensibly a showcase for the talent in Kanye’s artist and producer stables, the music they’ve turned in resembles nothing so much as the plush posse cuts of Kanye’s last solo outing My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and its accompanying G.O.O.D. Friday leak series.
Cruel Summer reprises those releases’ ethos of maximalism for maximalism’s sake without their underpinning of sociopolitical rage and self-deprecating introspection, though. What we’re left with is a gaggle of people talking about how rich and attractive they are. The album’s volley of Kanye-as-deity metaphors, Pusha T drug dealer platitudes, and crude sex jokes from Big Sean indulges everyone’s most obnoxious musical tendencies but rarely their mic skills. Sean’s “Clique” verse is a career highlight, and Kanye and Pusha’s chemistry powers the brash “New God Flow.” But 2 Chainz washes them all on “Mercy,” and Raekwon and Ghostface Killah lay waste to two separate songs, illuminating the fact that the album’s rapping is its least alluring attribute.
Cruel Summer‘s track record as great rap is spotty outside of its singles, but there’s some progressive pop afoot. Softer, slower tracks and batshit structural quirks move in around the halfway mark, and Kanye all but vanishes, instead beefing up the attention to melody with an army of singers. The-Dream and James Fauntleroy provide bookends to Pusha T and Ma$e’s verses on “Higher.” Marsha Ambrosius and Fauntleroy’s thorny, foul-mouthed confections add pop heft to the massive last-man-standing anthem “The One.” Teyana Taylor and John Legend brighten up the B-team lyrical workout “Sin City” and spar again on the exquisite “Bliss.” Kid Cudi’s garbled, euphoric “Creepers” soars in spite of its near unintelligible lyrics. The album’s second half is every bit as weird and winding as its front half is lean and propulsive, and playing them in order feels like riding a speeding car off a cliff square into the ocean.
Whether or not the experience is a pleasant one is entirely reliant on Cruel Summer’s abundant list of bit players. Pusha rarely disappoints, although 2 Chainz, Kanye and Sean sometimes waver. Ma$e and Cyhi the Prynce’s contributions are pleasant if superfluous. Teyana Taylor’s voice needs refining, and she is wisely paired with a more talented singer every time she turns up. Dan Black’s ambient synth work on “Creepers” shines. Hudson Mohawke’s video game synths on “Bliss” and the Moroder-soundtracking-Scarface breakdown on “Mercy” are highlights. But Hit-Boy’s “Cold” instrumental hews too close to Watch the Throne’s “Niggas in Paris,” and “The Morning” sounds like a rehash of “Cold.” The remix of Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like” that closes the album is essentially a tacky nu-metal cover of the original. Cruel Summer is menacingly overpopulated, and just about every song contains a flourish or performance that could’ve been jettisoned to improve the quality of the whole.
Cruel Summer might be the worst thing in Kanye West’s discography thus far, but it’s a success as mainstream rap cabal compilation albums go. It might be too crowded, it may lack the depth and cohesion we’ve come to expect from projects bearing Kanye’s name, and it may be very nearly devoid of the input of the label’s most talented associates (Common kicks a few bars on “The Morning,” but Mos Def, Q-Tip, and No ID are completely absent), but it beats the tar out of Young Money’s We Are Young Money and both of Maybach Music Group’s Self Made compilations. Cruel Summer is about as good of an album as could be expected from a team whose primary players are Big Sean and 2 Chainz. If this album signifies the beginning of Kanye’s descent into the “too rich to care, too big to fail” space occupied by many of his peers, well, it was a good run.