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By Otis Graham
Over the last couple of years Kanye West has been pretty relentless. Not content with simply releasing perhaps the most critically-acclaimed rap album of the last decade in 2010, he dominated 2011 with his and Jay’s Watch the Throne, and he’s not finished yet. Specifically, he’s released a collaborative album with his G.O.O.D. Music labelmates/peons designed to showcase the group’s talent. Whether or not it succeeds on that point, one thing Cruel Summer does do is develop ‘Ye’s own personal mythology.
Technically he may only be executive producer of the album, and in-house beatsmiths such as Hit Boy and Hudson Mohawke take on a lot of the production workload, but it quickly becomes clear when listening to the album that Kanye’s fingerprints are all over it sonically. One of its strengths is the sort of musical inventiveness that characterised MBDTF: unhinged vocal samples sprinkled maniacally but astutely over tracks; the sudden changes in the beat that keep the listener interested. This is the case throughout the first half of the album, in which all four of its singles are pumped out in a barrage of bragodoccio and skittery, minimalistic soundscapes. Tracks like “Mercy” and the Jay-Z-featuring “Clique” provide all the wit and snarling arrogance you’ve come to expect from the crew, and when Ghostface Killah completely tears the house down with a guest spot on “New God Flow” it all seems too good to be true.
Which, unfortunately, it is. Once Yeezy solo track “Cold” ends halfway through the album, the mastermind behind it all largely takes a back seat, and it’s at this point that the roster’s other rappers start to show their weaknesses. Big Sean has charisma but no technical skill. Cyhi has skill but no charisma. Mase really should not still be rapping. At least Kid Cudi’s turned-up-in-the-studio-drunk travesty “Creepers” has the virtue of being so terrible it’s kind of funny. Although they have their moments, it’s these guys who prevent Cruel Summer from joining Kanye’s other records in immortality.
In releasing an album under the G.O.O.D. Music name, Kanye West was probably trying to prove that he’s not just a player but a manager; to show the world the gifts of the team he’s assembled over the last couple of years. In this he may have failed, but there’s plenty on show in Cruel Summer to suggest that rap’s mad genius is himself still on top form.