Unless you’re unnaturally excited for the upcoming new Aerosmith album, GOOD Music’s Cruel Summer is 2012’s most anticipated album of the year. Featuring a roster full of hip hop superstars, including Kanye West, Jay Z, Big Sean, Pusha T, 2 Chainz, John Legend, Common, and Kid Cudi, hopes were high for Cruel Summer, especially after (the excellent) “Mercy” and “New God Flow” were released as singles.
Late last week, the album leaked, only slightly before its official release date tomorrow, so fans were able to make judgements on the album as a whole, not just on the basis of a few tracks. The consensus: when’s the next Kanye solo album coming out? Cruel Summer isn’t bad, but it doesn’t live up to its combined talent.
Here are five things Cruel Summer does right, and five it does wrong.
1. RIGHT. The production is top-notch, as expected. Kanye worked on every track, but he also brought in a murderer’s row of talent to assist him, including Illmind, Million $ Mano, Twilite Tone, and Dan Black, who contributes on Kid Cudi’s clapping “Creepers,” a late-album highlight.
2. WRONG. In terms of the GOOD Music talent, there’s Kanye West, and then there’s everyone else. With all due respect to Pusha T and 2 Chainz and slightly less respect to Big Sean, ‘Ye raps circles around the rest of his crew, and his lines are consistently the best on the album (despite not living up to his career standards). Take the bombastic “Mercy,” for instance, in which after a murky Big Sean verse and another from Pusha T, who practically hisses out, “I’m bill dropping Ms. Pacman, this pill popping-ass ho,” the original beat drops, everything begins to pulsate and vibrate, then Kanye comes in, with all his bravado, and definitely raps, “I step in Def Jam building like I’m the sh*t/Tell em give me fifty million or I’mma quit.” Not unlike Watch the Throne, Cruel Summer is about how GOOD Music is the greatest and how no one can f*ck with them. Thing is, Kanye’s the only one who you believe.
3. RIGHT. The first half of the album. Beginning with the string plucking at the beginning from the R Kelly-assisted “To the World,” which I kind of love despite the Autotune and resemblance to Watch the Throne‘s “Blast Off” (or maybe that’s why I love it?), up to DJ Khaled and DJ Pharris demanding to “get the Theraflu” at the end of “Cold,” Cruel Summer, while never actually reaching the level of “great,” sounds like the kind of album that will be played in cars for months to come. It’s bombastic, hook-heavy, and contagious, like a top-40 song that you know you shouldn’t like, yet have hidden on your iTunes. That’s not a bad thing. But then…
4. WRONG. The second half of the album. Things fall apart. With few exceptions, one of which I’ll mention below, “Higher” to “I Don’t Like” just…kind of lay there. The verses aren’t as clever, the rapping feels lethargic, and the beats are lazy. It’s as if they speak so much money on the first six tracks that they had cut down on the budget for the final six. Kanye has described Cruel Summer as a “ghetto opera” (like Carmen: A Hip Hopera?), but if that’s true, it’s one without an ending, just a slow ascension into mediocrity, where instead of paying attention, your mind begins to drift to thoughts of Kanye’s next project.
5. RIGHT. An underrated component of any album: how long it is. If it’s too short, it feels minor and incomplete; if it’s too long, it feels bloated and runs the risk of listeners losing interest. Cruel Summer, at 12 tracks over 54 minutes, feels just right — if only the content was better.
6. WRONG. I hate to keep going back to Kanye (no, I don’t), but one of my biggest peeves about Cruel Summer is how impersonal it is. One of the things that made Late Registration, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, etc. so great and feel so vital is how personal they felt to their creator. In a genre that too often confuses bluster for an actual emotion, Kanye was a breath of fresh air — he wrote down and recorded rhymes that too many other rappers would have been embarrassed to. Not because they were bad, but because they were too intimate.
On Watch the Throne, which at least had the excuse of meaning to be a fun distraction from making “Something Important,” and Cruel Summer, Kanye’s taken a step back. His production expertise remains, but the words just aren’t there; any rapper could have penned, “So I just meditate at the home in Pompei/About how I could build a new Rome in one day.” That’s not to say it’s not good. It’s just that it’s not great. Is that unfair? Probably, but that’s what happens when you make something as good as “Diamonds of Sierra Leone.”
7. RIGHT. Raekwon in “The Morning,” particularly, “All my n*ggas watches is rough/Grabbing our crotches yelling, ‘What up?’/The jeans cost $500? F*ck,” which I’m reading as a minor Kanye diss; he’s not street enough. Dissension amongst the ranks isn’t such a bad thing, after all.
8. WRONG. Despite Cruel Summer‘s packed roster, there are notable GOOD Music signees who don’t make an appearance on the album. Where’s Yasiin Bey? How come Common only gets a single verse? Surely Jadakiss could have been bumped from “I Don’t Like” in favor of Q-Tip, right?
9. RIGHT. Everything about “New God Flow,” GOOD Music’s rallying cry. It’s the best track on Cruel Summer, IMHO, with spirited, impassioned turns from Kanye West, Pusha T, and Ghostface Killah, who contributes, “I got soccer moms paying for c*ck/Asians get it from behind while they cleanin’ their wok,” all over a haunting, looping piano beat.
10. WRONG. What the hell is going on in “Bliss”? Not only is it Cruel Summer‘s worst song, it’s the worst song BY FAR. It sounds like the closing credits of an ’80s action film, complete with soaring eagle sound effects. Also, ending the album with “I Don’t Like” is a letdown, particularly coming from the guy whose former albums close with “Big Brother,” “Late,” and “Lost In the World/Who Will Survive in America?” It’s not a bad track by any means, but — well, on second thought, maybe it is the best way to end the album. It’s disjointed, cocky, a little bloated, yet contains an occasional flash of brilliance with a memorable beat. It’s Cruel Summer.