Few modern musicians have managed to achieve the level of cultural dominance that Kanye West currently possesses. He may be an easy target for mockery—one South Park episode centered entirely on his ego—the reason he is so frequently the subject of parody and tabloids is simply that people recognize Kanye West. But while he is well known for his loud personality, West has always managed to produce music that keeps up with his high-volume persona. His most recent work, “Cruel Summer”—a collaborative effort by his record label and crew, G.O.O.D. Music—despite a few small flaws, is of the high caliber fans have come to expect.
West has always cultivated a strong brand, both in his image and his music, and now he sits atop a record label filled with rising stars and living legends alike. G.O.O.D. Music includes John Legend, Common, Kid Cudi, Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), Pusha T, and others. “Cruel Summer” is the group’s first record, and it is certainly not wanting for more talent, as West deftly integrates these artists and many more into each song to create a varied and fascinating ride. However, the abundance of talent on the album also detracts from the experience, as West’s normally dazzling presence is obscured somewhat by the multitude of other artists attempting to shine alongside him.
At its best moments, “Cruel Summer” flawlessly interweaves many very different artists to great effect. “Mercy” begins with an unorthodox chant as a hook, then launches into West, Big Sean, Pusha T, and 2 Chainz trading verses. This track shows how collaboration can work beautifully, with four very different artists delivering very distinctive performances in a fairly simple format without any pretense or confusion. Big Sean is able to display what West dubbed “hashtag rap” with broken simile and puns, and Pusha T’s smooth flow and high voice plays nicely against West’s hard hitting delivery. The juxtaposition highlights the individuality of each artist. “New God Flow” works in much the same way, with Pusha T, West, and Ghostface Killah delivering consecutive concussive verses. This is the way posse albums work best: with rappers trading verses, allowing their personalities to shine together without any one artist attempting to outshine the rest.
Tracks like “To The World” and “Creepers” represent another way in which collaborative tracks can work effectively. Both tracks feature only one artist in addition to West and serve as a true showcase of the featured artist’s personality and identity. The opener, “To The World,” is a fantastic blend of West and R. Kelly: The track drips with Kelly’s trademark bump-and-grind flow and gospel crooning, and grandiose drums and dramatic bass set the stage for another Kanye spectacle.
“Creepers” is an unexpected gem. The track features Kid Cudi, whose melodic mumbles are lovely and haunting. The mix of Cudi’s self-examination and singsong droning with Dan Black’s solemn, airy production results in a stirring and earnest track that seems almost out of place nestled in the middle of this album.
The pitfalls of this large collaboration are only apparent when the album is viewed holistically. Unlike West’s previous works, such as the conceptual masterpiece “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” “Cruel Summer” sounds like a compilation of very solid singles rather than a carefully constructed and deliberately laid out album. Even West’s previous collaborative work, “Watch The Throne,” had very clearly defined roles for West and Jay-Z, but “Cruel Summer” suffers from the fact that it has a huge number of artists all attempting to distinguish themselves. While the artists, both big and small, manage to orbit smoothly around West and coexist harmoniously at points, numerous and conflicting artistic presences cloud the normally iron-clad vision and bravado of West albums.
However, to say that “Cruel Summer” is a bad album for these reasons alone would be foolish. It is still one of the best hip-hop releases of the year, with just about every song on the album capable of standing on its own as a powerful single. Kanye West still stands tall with this newest release, with production and flow so killer that his fans and haters alike will be begging for mercy.
—Staff writer Alex Tang can be reached at email@example.com.