It’s a new world out there right now. It’s a modern one. The world we live in now is a streamlined, expertly minimal and fresh-smelling apartment. It’s presented carefully but really could care less about what you think. Remember when you first heard the The College Dropout and you were just really impressed, or maybe a little confused? Remember when Late Registration came out and you couldn’t stop listening to it? Remember when Graduation came out and you vaguely thought this is hardly rap, this is amazing, what’s he doing here? Remember “Stronger”? Remember when you first heard “Love Lockdown” in your girlfriend’s basement and everything made more sense but you still couldn’t believe it? Remember when 808s & Heartbreak came out and a few months later every rap song became sparse paranoid beats and slightly more personal rhymes? Remember when you heard “Runaway” for the first time live on the VMAs and stumbled around in a hysterically excited daze for the rest of the night? Remember My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the best album of our generation. Remember when you thought Watch the Thronesounded sort of unfinished, good, full of ideas, but more like a mixtape than an album? Remember “Niggas In Paris” though? If you don’t remember any of that, then please at least try to remember today because today Cruel Summercomes out.
I need to collect myself here. Hold on a second while I pick up my melted-off face and blown-mind chunks up off the floor. That’s a mess, I’m sorry. Let me just watch MSNBC or something for a few minutes to sort of calm down. Cruel Summer is a total smokeshow. It’s the hottest girl in the room. It’s really something else. Listening to it the first time through, you get the distinct impression that the world has changed; listening to it again, you know it has. Besides the tangible real-world differences––Kanye West’s GOOD Music roster is now the most formidable and talented clique on the planet, etc.––Cruel Summer is made up of dozens and dozens of less perceptible yet even more incredible little statements that will quickly seep into the ether of our time. The culture will move and become one with its gifts. It’s happened before; it happens every time Kanye West opens his mouth. But something about Cruel Summer feels different. First, it’s not a Kanye West album but instead a collaboration album between the artists on West’s GOOD Music label, which he founded in 2004. The current GOOD Music (“GOOD” stands for Getting Out Our Dreams) roster includes Big Sean, Kid Cudi, Common, John Legend, Pusha T, Cyhi the Prince, D’banj, Malik Yusef and Teyana Taylor, all of whom, in addition to 2 Chainz, R. Kelly, Chief Keef, Jadakiss, Travi$ Scott, Cocaine 80s, The-Dream, Raekwon, DJ Khaled, Ghostface Killah and Jay-Z, appear on Cruel Summer. (West himself appears on seven of the 12 tracks here.)
More than anything, the album is a display of West’s impeccable taste, a testament to his ability to get such high quality work out of all the rappers and producers involved. Listening to Cruel Summer is like slowly walking through a well-curated art show. There’s so much to see, so much to take in, so much nuanced talent. Every single sonic second of the album seems extremely thought-through, agonized-over. Nothing seems rushed or phoned in. The ideas are thorough, massive, and couldn’t have been executed better. The scope of Cruel Summer’s creativity is clear from the very first seconds of the first song, “To the World”: these addicting regal squeaks hover and bounce, ascending upwards until R. Kelly’s voice––the first voice on the album––sweetly sings, “Let me see you put your middle fingers up to the world.” From there, we’re plunged into the pulsing “Clique” and the ubiquitous “Mercy,” an unprecedented duo of center-of-the-universe hits.
It’s startling how good everything on the record sounds. There aren’t any rough parts nor is it all tacky smoothness. In large part, the production is gives Cruel Summer its overwhelmingly modern feel. The beats are unlike anything else out right now. They seem to glint coolly in the sun; they sound different in different situations. They adapt. They seem to change with each listen. They are thoroughly fleshed-out yet simultaneously maximal and minimal. There is a stately slowness to every beat here. Nothing goes too fast; everything slaps. “Higher” is all gauze-thin synth textures and reedy whining vocal sample, but it’s also very bass-y; the last minute sees the song change completely with this deep little vocal hook that pulls the song to its end. “Sin City” starts with blown out synth pads and what sounds like the vocal blip that Lana Del Rey’s “Blue Jeans” is built around. The drums on the huge ballad “The One” are pretty revelatory. Really, the production alone is worth the price of admission.
It’s not necessary to compare Cruel Summer to West’s solo records––but it’s better than Watch the Throne. It’s better music. And it’s a better statement. What West has achieved here is amazing though it’s still far too early to understand all of its effects. Essentially, by being constantly in the spotlight and remaining always culturally relevant, West has managed to use his music––this music––as an up-to-date commentary on the culture––a culture that he himself has created a great deal of. On “The One,” West reaches back a few months and, references––and also updates––one of he and Jay’s best recent lyrical inventions, casually rapping, “If you ever held a title belt you would know how Michael felt/ Tyson, Jackson, Jordan, Michael Phelps.” These moments both elevate and immediately date the music, making it somehow more than just a song. The numerous Kim Kardashian references have a similar effect. (There’s the somewhat dubious line about the Kim Kardiashian/Ray-J sextape on “Clique.” On “Cold,” West raps, “And I’ll admit I fell in love with Kim about the same time she fell in love with him/ that’s okay baby girl do your thing/ lucky I ain’t have Jay drop him from the team”––Kardashian’s ex, Kris Humpries, plays for the Brooklyn Nets, of which Jay-Z is part owner. Finally, apparently fully a part of the family, West says “Scott Disick”––Kourtney Kardashian’s long-term boyfriend–– instead of “dick.”)
It’s nice to think about the community West has managed to foster here. Plucking Big Sean and 2 Chainz from relative obscurity. Giving R. Kelly the hook on “To the World.” Resurrecting Pusha T’s career. Getting a Ghostface verse on “New God Flow.” West may be the glue that holds this whole project together––marketing, hype, creativity and execution––but everyone involved, somewhat surprisingly, seems very crucial to the final product. There is a palpable sense of everyone here enjoying himself (and herself) immensely and very eager to do good work. It’s all of the small things that add up to this sort of world-stopping genius: verses play off each other in a fluid and sometimes goofy way; the adlibs are not only funny but catchy, something you look forward to––Big Sean is responsible for some of the best here, his “oh god”s and “woah”s are total classics; “The Morning” opens with this warped futuristic reggae line, very first wave, before burning down into deceptively quiet and chintzy bleeps; the West says “a foo brews” instead of “a few brews” on “Clique”; the way 2 Chainz breaks up the syllables of “baby” on “The One”; the deadly but simple, almost stupid hooks on “Mercy,” “Clique,” and “Cold.”
To quote the L.A. Times, Cruel Summer is a “sonic runway show.” It really is. It’s beautiful. But, much like a fashion show, one gets the sense that the high-art and uniqueness of the songs on Cruel Summer will soon be co-opted by lesser artists; pallid interpretations of the top designers will quickly appear in H&M. Interestingly, though, one also gets the sense, listening to Cruel Summer, that that’s sort of the point. The painstaking creativity and craft present on Cruel Summer is undeniable––these songs sound like nothing else in music right now––but unlike My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which is simply inimitable, Cruel Summer seems meant as a blueprint for the future of rap––and music. It’s as if West is telling the world, “This is the best sound. I made it but you can have it. Good luck. It’s just going to make everything better.”