5:00PM ET September 20th, 2012
Contributor: Todd Williams
A Rocky Williform Company
Thanks largely to Kanye West's influence, there are two pervasive themes in much of today's mainstream hip hop: a sense of persecuted entitlement and a preoccupation with the emptiness of being incredibly wealthy and famous. Kanye spent the better part of four albums mining those two ideas--sometimes with dazzling results. On the long-awaited compilation from his G.O.O.D. Music roster of artists, Cruel Summer, those twin notions are front-and-center on almost every track.
If only his compadres had his flair for the melodramatic and his musical instincts.
The album opener, "To the World" has the kind of bombastic production one has come to expect from Kanye projects over the past few years, with Yeezy dropping few lines; including "I need a new crib to hold my plaques, Rick Ross told me that." As an opener, its a bit of a dud--with a hook from R. Kelly that seems phoned-in. Despite a kinetic Kanye rap, with his usual parade of I'm-rich-and-hating it pensiveness, its not the anthem it clearly aims to be.
The Hit-Boy produced "Clique" is a triumph, with an excellently funky, minimal production on the verses that transitions into a pumping sonic backdrop. With Big Sean opening the song with one of the most inspired verses on the album and a scene-stealing appearance from Jay-Z, "Clique" is a standout track on an album that suffers from schizophrenia and shallowness.
Its hard to shake the feeling that the artists are all guests at Kanye West's party, and even for a compilation, the project never seems to find a focus. "The One" was probably a better idea than the finished track suggests. The somber piano backing doesn't really jibe with a hook like "Got a pistol on my whip, and its gonna be some sh*t. If you want it, bring it on," as sung by Marsha Ambrosius. Coming late on an album full of "Look at me" pomposity and "Woe is me" rich-boy-blues, its an indistinct moment that never catches fire.
The somewhat surprising Ma$e cameo aside, "Higher" is another one of the project's highlights. Some are sure to take exception to the rapper-turned-reverend boasting about his wealth, but if you don't take it too seriously, he sounds focused for a guy who's largely been M.I.A. for the past several years. As to be expected, "The Morning" serves as the 'lyrical' showcase of the album, with veterans Pusha T, Common and Raekwon trading bars with 2 Chainz, Kid Cudi and Cyhi the Prynce. The production allows the rhymes to take center stage-a rarity in contemporary hip hop. In particular, the Chef shines, despite a dunderheaded couplet like "Love us or not/The Mark Zuckerbergs of the block." But, like "The One," it's another track that seems stilted by a hook that doesn't really fit with rest of the song. An "almost" moment stunted by the weird lack of cohesion that defines this project.
The Kid Cudi showcase "Creepers," however, is a strange highlight. Over a skittering beat, the Ohio native sounds otherworldly and detached. Cudi has never been an artist that appeals to everyone, so if you've never liked him, that probably won't change here. But for those who appreciate his gift for druggy abstractisms and forlorn introspection, "Creepers" is an oddball standout. Nonetheless, its a little sobering that "Mercy," the project's lead single, is quite easily the best song here. The crew never sounds more in-charge than on the project's first single, a sad reminder of how disposable the rest of this feels.
Cruel Summer is a solid listen, but never feels like more than what it is--a side project for a brilliant artist who wants to showcase the talents that populate his imprint. It may serve its purpose in announcing G.O.O.D. Music to the world, but here's hoping the artists showcased on Cruel Summer emerge more fully-formed on their own projects. Because here, they seem to be merely window dressing for a mad genius.