Considering Kanye West raps on more than half of these 12 tracks, considering Kanye West oversees the production on eight of these 12 tracks, considering the cover was designed to recall that of Watch the Throne and considering Kanye West’s track record up until that point, it’s hard not to think of Cruel Summer as Kanye West’s first real misstep. (Though I find 808s & Heartbreak to be cold for a supposedly emotional album, it’s influence – for better or worse – is undeniable.) But to clarify, Cruel Summer – released much too close to the fall season to deserve that name – is not a disappointment because of Kanye West, it’s a disappointment because of his G.O.O.D. Music cohorts. Actually, if anything, the tracks with the most Kanye West involvement tend to be the only tracks you should keep. I’m a sucker for the production of “To The World” because it sounds like they took the synthesized strings of Eurythmics’ “Here Comes the Rain” and threw in martial percussion that evolves into an arena-engaging stomp with the reliable 808s thrown in. Meanwhile, “Clique,” “Mercy” and “Cold” are damn-near irresistible bangers (Hit-Boy, who produces “Clique” and “Cold,” is generally infallible at making bangers) (the screams on “Cold” are a warm-up for “Black Skinhead”), and Kanye West, who slouched behind Jay-Z on Watch the Throne, is invigorated on those three tracks and “New God Flow.”
Sure, some of those tracks aren’t perfect, and a more obvious problem is that a lot of them were released or leaked before Cruel Summer (you might recognize “Cold” as being previously known as “Theraflu”) and all of them appear in the album’s first half. The best you can hope for with regards to a lot of these verses is a clever one-liner or too (my personal favorite is Jay-Z’s “Now who with me? Vamanos! Call me Hov or Jefe / Translation: I’m the shit, least that’s what my neck say / Least that’s what my cheques say”). “To the World” falls apart after the introduction: R. Kelly’s verse sounds melodically and is lyrically a continuation of the chorus while Kanye West just throws a couple of half-phrases together and repeats a ton of them twice for easy rhymes and catchiness. Meanwhile, Pusha T hasn’t quite figured out what kind of rapper he wants to be and offers filler lines like “All she want is some heel money, all she want is some bill money / He takes his time, counts it out, I weighs it up, that’s real money.” And the ending of “New God Flow” almost single-handedly throws the song to shitsville, where Kanye West does a crowd-rallier over a martial beat but he’s the only one in the room.
What else? The-Dream continues to be the least likeable man in contemporary R&B (the hook of “Higher” goes: “She say I make her wanna touch it / She love it, she love it / she make me wanna touch it / I love it, I love it”). The shallow talent that is KiD CuDi gets the only other solo spot to himself, and he isn’t very good as a singer (though he tries) or a rapper (sample line: “If I had one wish, it’d be to have more wishes / DUH!!!! Fuck trying to make it rhyme”); shame, because the drum propulsion of that track made it one of the better beats of the second half. Nice piano line or not, “The One” has no business dragging itself to 6 minutes, and Kanye West’s most memorable lines are when he’s referencing other ones (ie. the obvious “Niggas in Paris” reference aside, “You would know how Michael felt” brings me back to “Through the Wire”’s “You would know how Mace felt”). But the worst song is “Sin City,” in part because the plodding beat is mostly built out of that sample that you’ve heard a million times and a gross drum sound but because Malik Yusef slowly make his way through his verse like he was reading it for the first time (and the whole “rhyme everything in the verse/stanza with the same word” is both played out and limited; his verse means nothing despite being the most “conscious” one of the entire project).