Kanye West is in a really good mood. Following the arena-conquering onslaught of Watch The Throne Mr. West has embarked on another joint enterprise. This time he’s promoting his record label by sharing space with his stand out stars (Pusha T, Common), industry buddies (Jay-Z, 2 Chainz) and his freshly signed upstarts (Chief Keef, Big Sean). Those hoping for the contorted egotistical catharsis of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or the reflective self evaluation of “All Falls Down” and “Murder To Excellence” will be bitterly disappointed. This is Kanye West at his most arrogant and boastful.
That’s not a sentence to be written lightly. Kanye has never been acquainted with any kind of shame. He is self aware and thoughtful, but never apologetic, and on Cruel Summer he’s swapped a persecution complex for a God delusion. It sounds horrible on paper, but it’s thrilling on record. The man knows how to boast; “Don’t Talk To Me About Clothes, I’ll Mother Fucking Embarrass You, Hollering About Some Ho’s I’ll Motherfucking Embarrass You”. While the occasional death threats are laughable, Kanye is still the only rapper who can rap about sitting next to the editor of Vogue, going go-karting with supermodels, and being flyer than a parakeet without sounding ridiculous.
Pusha-T drops choice verses practically every time of asking. On the irresistible “New God Flow” he stunts off Kanye’s God delusion (“I Believe There’s A God Above Me, I’m Just The God OF Everything Else”) before delivering a stunning one line justification for a brutal drug dealing legend’s decision to join forces with Mr. Project Runway (“They Said Push Ain’t Fit With The Umbrella, But I Was Good With The Yay As A Whole Seller”). The rest of guest stars are more limited, and confined to situations that either show off their trademark hits (Chief Keef’s “Don’t Like”) or allow them to do what they do best without risking overexposure (2 Chainz, D’Banj) – there are a few cringe inducing moments (“If I Had One Wish, It Would Be To Have More Wishes, Duh“) but they are the exception rather than the rule.
The real stars of the show are Kanye’s production team. Surprisingly dexterous, Hit-Boy manages to steal the show with the sicker than sicker beats for “Clique”, “Higher”, and “Cold”, but everyone pulls their weight. The album grows steadily more luscious as it moves closer to The-Dream and John Legend’s cameos but, for the most part, this is the most stripped down and minimalistic album Kanye has ever released. His trademark layered maximalist style is replaced by simple but killer basslines, Odd Future’s woozy blurts, and The Weeknd’s off kilter whines. The (relatively) stripped down approach appears to have lit a fire under Kanye and his contributors, who have a riot as they fire through killer single after killer single. Cruel Summer is not Kanye’s most accomplished record, nor his most emotionally sincere (not even close), but it might just be his most immediate and fun release to date. David Hayter