‘Cruel Summer’ good, but not golden
Album Review | 3 out of 5 stars
Published: Monday, September 24, 2012
Updated: Monday, September 24, 2012 07:09
For the past two years, everything Kanye West has touched has turned to gold. Whether it was his albums, his music videos or even his fashion sense — he often wore a leather skirt during his “Watch the Throne” concerts — West always seemed to come out on top.
And as listeners sat on their hands waiting for his most recent release, more of the same was expected. This album didn’t just have West’s fingerprints on it — it had his whole name slapped across the album title: “Kanye West Presents G.O.O.D. Music — Cruel Summer.”
The record debuted after a summer that was dominated by West and his fellow rappers. Audiences waited in anticipation for Big Sean to cry out “Swerve” one more time, and for Kanye to tell us what he “Don’t like,” with each song from “Mercy” to “Theraflu” — sorry, “Way Too Cold.” Each time, the rappers added new phrases to the lexicon and more money to their coffers.
Yet one has to wonder if West’s and his gang’s hubris has reached a point of no return. Given their recent successes, their pompousness is understandable. Their musical dominance, however, depends on a continued stream of songs and, more importantly, fresh hits.
So when a new album like “Cruel Summer” is released and nearly half of its content has already been chewed up and fully digested by listeners who heard the same singles months in advance, it’s hard to view it as anything but a sign that the best rap artists in music may have pushed themselves just a smidgeon too far.
West did pull such a move off on his “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (2010). However, that album was a musical event, an offering so original, creative and complete that the pre−released tracks still served a purpose on the final cut, as they tied the entire string of songs together.
On this album, West and the G.O.O.D. crew have attempted to put out something even more grandiose than the rap game can handle: a “ghetto opera,” as West explains on the track “To the World.” Yet the crew falls short of its lofty goals.
After hearing “To the World,” the album’s first and, by far, best track, “Cruel Summer” seems almost flawless. R. Kelly belts out a boastful, angry hook on which a cacophony of plucking strings sets the stage for a brilliantly auto−tuned sound. Here is the Kanye we’ve come to know and love, the genius of an artist able to help R. Kelly achieve a mesmerizing, slightly haunting, performance.
The momentous opening gives listeners an expectation that this initial newness will pervade the remaining songs. Unfortunately, the next section of “Cruel Summer” quickly grows stale. The next five tracks include the singles “Cold,” “Mercy,” “New God Flow” and “Clique.” “Clique,” released just eight days before the album itself, is the only relatively new song in the group.
The quality of these songs is undeniable: they were, quite simply, amazing when first released. But after the summer radio’s constant repetition, they’ve become old and overplayed, essentially causing a five−track downturn that engulfs a fresh song, “Clique,” and creates a sluggish heart of the record’s lineup from which it struggles to recover.
The only other full track that truly delivers on the album is “The One.” Here, Marsha Ambrosius declares herself one of R&B’s finest voices, as she sings over a militant and industrial drum−driven hook that contrasts starkly with the simplicity of production in the verses. West also offers another taste of his worldview, rapping, “Everything around me got me underwhelmed.” West complements typically strong verses from both Big Sean and 2 Chainz to put forth one of his best sets of bars on the record.
But to make everything around seem underwhelming, the records one creates must be absolutely overwhelming. And the bottom line about “Cruel Summer” is that its greatness does not overwhelm. Sure, there are a couple of magnificent new songs. But ultimately there are just a few too many songs we’ve all heard a few too many times.
West also allocates too much time to some less talented rappers on certain tracks. For a long time, even when West featured rappers like Cocaine 80s or Travi$ Scott, he managed to seamlessly integrate them into a sensational piece of music. But on “Cruel Summer” he just can’t drum up that same kind of magic.
His name is on it, his fingerprints are all over it, but for the first time in years Kanye West has released an album that is certainly good, but definitely not gold.