September 20, 2012 4 comments
“Kanye West Presents:” is how the debut collaborative effort, Cruel Summer, from West’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint, is being marketed. Not a foreign move as far a posse albums go: take the spearheading principal of the equation, promote on the basis that said star will be the crux of the album’s appeal, and hope to thrive on a previous streak of success. This is not Kanye West’s album, though. This isn’t even largely Kanye influenced in the same way that last years Jay-Z collaboration Watch the Throne was (although, it is influenced by West in a different way that we’ll discuss later.) This is an album that Kanye West was obligated to commandeer by sheer virtue of existence. And, it sure as hell sounds more like a responsibility than a project of passion.
G.O.O.D. Music, as a label, is stacked in the favor of supreme talent. The front end features West himself, Mos Def, (Yasiin Bey, for the P.C.) Common, Q-Tip, Pusha T and John Legend. Somewhere on a lesser plain are Kid Cudi, Big Sean, Mr Hudson, CyHi the Prince, Def Jam shelf artist Teyana Taylor, Nigerian singer D’banj and, of course, the incomparable 2 Chainz. That’s a hell of a roster to have access to, yet simultaneously make very little individual impact since its current roster configuration of about the last three years. Even more perplexing is the fact that Mos Def, Q-Tip, Common and Mr Hudson are either absent or relegated to less than a full verse (in Com’s case) on the album itself, despite being some of the most critically acclaimed of the bunch. Instead, clubhouse manager Kanye decides to start the back end of his batting lineup in the first inning and rest his best pitchers when the stakes are the highest.
Opener “To the World” is exemplary of whatever mistrust there is in the primary players to deliver in pivotal spots. R. Kelly is asked to kick the album off for a completely overzealous two minutes and eight seconds. The song isn’t awful, (at least not by Watch the Throne‘s “Lift Off” standards) and Kanye’s verse is admittedly entertaining — if only for the verbal hash tag “Mitt Romney ‘on’t pay no tax!” But what did R. Kelly (or, possibly, Roscoe Dash?) bring to the table that couldn’t have been handled by any vocalist in house? Why was the first half of your teams grand entrance handled nearly entirely by someone unassociated with the team?
For the sake of continuity, though, that theme does thread throughout Cruel Summer. “New God Flow” pre-album release was a promising display of Push and Ye’s lyrical prowess and chemistry. Post-album release; a prime example of why you never let dominating rappers like Ghostface (whose “Mighty Healthy” was originally sampled) get the last bars. Ghost shames all parties involved. Raekwon continues the outshining expedition with his suffocating opening verse on “The Morning”, leaving the remaining six artists on the track to scrape for crumbs. And why The-Dream got a full one and a half minutes of auto-tuned self-service on “Higher” — matched by more than 16 bars of Ma$e (punctuating his verse with a shoutout to Bad Boy castaway Loon and a Michael Jackson “Shum’on”) to end the song — is far beyond me. Pusha’s abbreviated presence, and 2 Chainz’ three tacked on ad-libs, (indicating a verse that never came to be) on the track is the only justification for the song even qualifying for the album.
So much of Cruel Summer is wasted potential. And by potential I mean, the clear MVP here, Every Other Producer. “Clique” is almost the antithesis of everything this album was going for from a presentation standpoint. Rather than lush and expansive, Hit-Boy brings hard, augmented synth, deep bass, and relentless snare. He further proves to be the only spark of energy in the studio with the (inexplicably) DJ Khaled featured track “Cold”. While not the most potent instrumental creatively, it is a platform for Kanye to go off about everything from fashion, to Kim Kardashian, (hooray!) to notifying PETA about the status of his mink. Lifted, a G.O.O.D. Music in-house producer, helmed the superb beat for “Mercy” (a track I’m amazed not to be tired of yet) only to have Kanye butcher his section with some type of ill-advised euro-pop/house hybrid addition. If it weren’t for the final verse by The Artist Formally Known As Tity Boi flexing all over his closing 16, the track might have been doomed.
Elsewhere, if it’s not missed opportunities, is misused talent. Producer, and trap-step extraordinaire, Hudson Mohawke, adds his services to three tracks, and you’d never know it by just listening. His solo contribution “Bliss”, the decent John Legend/Teyana Taylor duet, is so watered-down and basic that you almost wonder how it even got off of the cutting room floor. “The One” is a better effort by default, but also notes Mannie Fresh as co-producer, to which I reply, “how so, sir?” There are a bevy of fingerprints all over Cruel Summer that make it so scattershot by nature, but it’s the lack of focus and competitiveness that hurts it the most. “Sin City” also has that unfortunately unfocused feel, with Travis Scott trying his hardest not to sound like CyHi, and Malik Yusef trying his hardest (and failing) to recapture the sense of poetic urgency he displayed on Late Registration’s “Crack Music”. Nothing comes together here as one solid idea. Just a jumble of opinions corralled for the sake of having a name on the material.
For crew albums, there needs to be a sense of unity. That’s the point of jamming all of these artists into one album in the first place. No one’s expecting 36 Chambers levels of cooperation, but is it too much to ask that we get more than three tracks prominently featuring the most visible rappers in the crew at once? Let’s go through the logistics: Pusha T has five verses, Big Sean has four, 2 Chainz has three and CyHi has two; none manage to leave much of a lasting impact or trace of what makes their presence special or separate from the other — save for Pusha, but that’s just by sheer quantity — because they’re spread paper thin. There was a better sense of community between these guys on that recent Funk Flex freestyle. And, out of all the talent in the group whose name doesn’t end with West, Cudi gets his own song? Really? “Creeper” is the best Scott had to offer? Not only is that overwhelmingly head-scratch worthy, but the grand finale to this audio statement that will represent the best this collective has to offer is a remix to a 17 year old Chicago internet sensation’s breakout single? The same rapper that dismissed Kanye’s influence on his career? Hell of a curtain close guys!
While this certainly isn’t Kanye West’s album, it seems to follow his trends as far as approach in presentation goes. That trend being: speak flashy nothings into the mic and throw big dollars at the instrumental with hopes to veil a lack of lyrical depth. I’m not saying Cruel Summer can’t be fun, either. “New God Flow” is ferociously delivered, “Clique” is the perfect friday night floor-filler, and “Mercy” still appropriately rattles trunks with raucous reverberation. But, everything else seems needlessly shallow. How is it that all of these highly capable musical minds (and 2 Chainz) can get in a room and only produce shiny mediocrity? I look at Kanye. Not as the reason, but as the artist being deferred to. West once rapped on “Gone”:
That line worked on multiple levels because we were dealing with an artist who was known for his unrelenting braggadocio, but also knew how inject substance into his style. The artists featured on Cruel Summer seem to follow the school-of-thought quoted above, but they’re not given the platform or alloted time to build any substance. Which ultimately leaves us with nothing but excessive style built on a foundation of unearned superficiality.
Cruel Summer is in stores and on iTunes now.