(Def Jam / GOOD; 2012)
By Brent Ables | 5 December 2012
Something went wrong: Kanye West should, by all rights of sense and justice, not need anyone to defend him. The price of shoving your luxurious gluttony down the throats of your listeners with every syllable should be clear: no one can feel bad for West. I mean, if half of what Ye claimed on Watch the Throne was true, the guy could not conceivably have a better life. There’s the “Cars, money, girls, and the clothes.” There’s chumming around with the greatest rappers and producers from three separate generations of hip-hop history on a daily basis. There’s Kim (I suppose). And Ye doesn’t even have the pathos of a Jay-Z, whose rise from the depths of the slums to the peak of the rap business permits him to play the “If you’d been through what I’ve been through” card to justify the most outrageous excesses. Yeezy is just a disgustingly rich human being whose ego has expanded beyond all the quantitative parameters that science has made available to us. If the man trips, surely we should let him fall?
But, really, Yeezy isn’t responsible for any of this. We are. You and I, we made this Monster. We told him he was a genius, and he believed us; we talk endlessly about the inconsequentialities of his life, so he lives it accordingly; we give him our money, and he spends it freely. We have a lot invested in this one-man army. This is why every new Kanye single and album is such an Event: because we just accept that it is. Yet, he’s earned it, all of it. His fulfillment of the dual role of producer/emcee has been a deeply satisfying journey one can measure in album-wide leaps, highlighted by both a lyrical character that’s grown immensely and the seeming ease in which he’s coaxed astonishing guest verses from otherwise forgettable MCs like Nicki Minaj while consistently bringing out the best in more frequent collaborators like Pusha T.
I think it’s this unparalleled sense for the selection, framing, and presentation of others’ verses—or, rather, the apparent lack of it—that explains the lukewarm reception Cruel Summer has received since its release. Because let’s face it, there are some very bad verses on this overstuffed luxury suite of a rap record. Which is what tends to happen when you let bad rappers rap: Big Sean, who drops tired punchlines with all the grace and imagination of a men’s room condom dispenser; Cyhi the Prince, who came up with one funny line for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) and then just keeps writing even though he knows he’s hit his high-water mark; 2 Chainz. It would be one thing for Kanye to have thrown his support behind these guys, but to put together an entire album just to showcase them—it flummoxes us, it disrupts our perfectly balanced sense for the harmony of the universe. This glaring lapse in his legendary quality control has led some to call Cruel Summer the weakest project that Kanye’s ever been associated with.
So this is where I have to step in, because: no. For all its flaws and excesses, Cruel Summer is an order of magnitude above the dreck of 808s and Heartbreak (2008), and if it doesn’t outshine any of Ye’s other solo works, I’d argue that it’s a deeper and bolder album than last year’s Watch the Throne. Ye has never, not even on the rightly revered Fantasy, brought such fire and authority to the mic; his signature black humor has never been funnier, his boasts bigger, or his flow more commanding. Witness the interlude of “Mercy,” where, as the loping, sinister beat transforms into some kind of satanic trance, Ye snarls out club-worthy rhymes about suicide. Witness West standing toe to toe with a top-form Pusha T on the Ghostface-sampling splendor of “New God Flow.” Pusha himself hasn’t sounded this righteous since Hell Hath No Fury (2006). Throw in Raekwon, Ghostface, Jadakiss, and Common, and you ably transcend the Big Sean/2 Chainz quotient.
Although West didn’t produce any of the tracks on his own, his musical signature is all over the album. Straightforward beats wind into digressions and end up a long way from where they started, voices are electronically altered in sometimes disconcerting ways, and radio-ready synth hooks are complemented by orchestral instrumentation (most notably, the piano and lovely pizzicato violins on “To the World”). West may have dropped the proverbial ball when it came to emcee selection, but his ear for quality beats is as on-point as ever. The second half of the record contains some of the most experimental music that West has ever been associated with: to those who say this album is lazy, I can only implore you to listen to the dark intricacies of “Sin City.”
It seems to me that this is what’s really kind of tragic about the reception of Cruel Summer. Kanye’s at a point in his career when many artists would, not without good reason, just call it a day and rest on their laurels. God knows no one’s expecting another Dark Twisted Fantasy out of the man just yet. But instead Ye is moving forward, experimenting with new voices and continuing to explore and even expand the compositional boundaries of hip-hop. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that he needs to be a lot more careful about who he moves forward with; if it were up to me, Pusha and Yeezy would be on every track. But, of course, it’s not up to me. And it’s not up to you. Like everything else, it’s up to Kanye. After all, we gave him this power in the first place.