With a Kanye West collaboration album, it's hard to know what to expect. We went through the same thing last summer with Watch the Throne, although minutes into that release the braggadocious mission statement was crystal clear. Cruel Summer is a little different, especially considering the fact that Kanye's list of collaborators is far longer and much less glitzy. The album's first single, "Mercy" didn't give us much help even though it's an awesome, quintessential posse track, Kanye's verse is set to a completely different beat, obviously apart from Big Sean, Pusha T, and 2 Chainz. Therein lies the problem G.O.O.D. Music faced on Cruel Summer -- can an album meant to showcase a whole group overcome the spotlight of its leader?
If that was the goal -- to highlight a collective as a whole, its members and its ability to produce varied styles then Cruel Summer mostly succeeds. If the goal was to make a hip-hop album on the level of Kanye Wests previous releases, then the boys of G.O.O.D. Music fell short.
Cruel Summer has plenty of solid standalone tracks -- the aforementioned "Mercy," The-Dream fueled "Higher," and the brilliantly triumphant opener featuring R. Kelly, "To The World." Kanye West certainly takes over the songs that hes featured on, even saying that hes at the helm on The One. But hes present on only more than about half of the album, giving other players the chance to shine, and some seriously come through. Pusha T is unreal on his tracks, definitely taking this album as a shot to get back to where he was with Clipse. His fierceness and irreverence actually pair nicely with the more playful styles of Kanye and Big Sean. And God, it's nice to hear Mase's voice again -- the flow he brings to "Higher" is unrivaled in its cool confidence.
An album featuring so many artists is sure to have its losers, too. After owning "Blame Game" on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, John Legends two contributions on Cruel Summer are confusingly bad. "Bliss" is so out of place on this album in every way, sounding way more appropriate for a Beyonce album. By far, the worst song on the album, and putting it against the most thug-leaning song on the album, "I Don't Like," only accentuates its incongruity. Similarly, "Sin City" doesn't get good until Teyana Taylor and Legend have gone quiet and Malik Yusef is left to deliver dramatically dark and distorted verses of spoken word. It seems like it would have been more appropriate to save Taylor and Legend for well-written hooks on hip-hop songs, instead of entrusting whole R&B tunes to them (although that may go against the whole point of Cruel Summer).
Even though Kanye only appears on the album sporadically, his fingerprints are all over it production-wise -- he is listed as a co-producer on eight of the album's twelve songs. "To The World" and "The One" have the piano key flairs of Graduation; "Higher" sounds straight off of 808s & Heartbreak minus the auto-tune; the blippy beats of "The Morning" and "Cold" have to remind listeners of The College Dropout's "Get 'Em High;" and "Sin City" uses the same distortion that Kanye utilizes on Dark Twisted Fantasy. This is more of an observation than a criticism -- those albums are highly regarded and Cruel Summers iterations are hardly rip-offs.
So many of these songs land so well on the ears and so many of the verses are excellent, but still something is keeping me from bowing down to Cruel Summer the way I did to Watch the Throne and Dark Twisted Fantasy. The peaks of this album just never reach the sublimity of great hip-hop. Perhaps its the frenetic pace at which rappers take the mic from the previous one; or else its the lack of one clear artistic voice. Whatever it is, Cruel Summer is a strong effort that produces some extremely memorable moments, but still, its not quite there.