The Trouble with Kanye’s Cruel Summer

I do not know Kanye West personally, but from what I can tell, I would assume he is happy. He is frequently seen on double dates with Jay-Z, Beyonce, and Kim Kardashian, designs his own fashion line, and holds court on key issues in hip-hop on Twitter. In the past, he has utilized past turmoil as a muse, releasing 808s and Heartbreak after his mother’s death and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy following the Taylor Swift fiasco and his breakup with model Amber Rose. Now, his contentment would see him release a posse album, where he can shine a light on the artists on his label while gloating at the inevitable haters. West may accomplish these facets of the project, but the overall product pales in comparison with his previous work.

For the haters, this would seem to present the best opportunity to enjoy a Kanye West album, as it features all of his production values and less of his rapping that always frustrates purists. Cruel Summer certainly features a guest list that would make many music awards show jealous: R. Kelly, Jay-Z, Raekwon, Common, The-Dream, Ma$e(!), Ghostface Killah, John Legend, Kid Cudi, Jadakiss… The rest of the guest spots are filled with lesser known artists and the core of Kanye’s up-and-coming posse: Big Sean, Pusha T, 2 Chainz, and CyHi the Prynce. Pusha T is an acclaimed artist in his own right from his days in Clipse, and his presence is generally welcome. 2 Chainz’ giddy thug persona is better served on his own album cut with Kanye, “Birthday Song,” which plays for different stakes than most of Cruel Summer. Big Sean is a punchless hypeman, and CyHi is not ready for primetime.

But purists will be disappointed to find that the best tracks are the ones with Kanye most present, most of which occur in the front-loaded early portion of the album. Cruel Summer opens with “To the World,†establishing a tone not dissimilar from Watch the Throne’s luxury-rap, with R. Kelly’s middle-finger-urging paired with Yeezy’s lamentations of being the “only nigga in Beverly Hills†after noting that Mitt Romney doesn’t pay taxes. The following track, “Clique,†features production from Hitboy, of “Niggas in Paris†fame, and is the record’s clear standout. Hova’s verse is stronger than most of The Blueprint 3, and the chorus features a sample reminiscent of These New Puritans’ “We Want War.†West brings up his relationship with Kim Kardashian for the first time, noting, proudly, that she’s “famous off her home movies.â€

“Mercy†is a nod towards the codeine-drenched sounds of A$AP Rocky, with a deliberate beat and a plethora of downward pitch-shifted vocals. “New God Flow,†which debuted at the BET Music Awards, almost deserves its portentous title and gives ample stage for Pusha T and Ghostface.

Cracks in the armor begin to emerge on “The Morning,†where Kid Cudi and Common seem out of place and the random crooning from D’banj fits poorly in-between verses. “Cold,†formerly known as “Theraflu†before a lawsuit was threatened, serves as the final redeeming single. Produced, once again, by Hitboy, it features a minimal, trebly synth line and Kanye’s most personally revealing lyrics: “And I’ll admit, I fell in love with Kim/ Around the same time she had fell in love with him/ Well that’s cool, baby girl do ya thang/ Lucky I ain’t had Jay drop him from the team.â€

West only appears on two of the final six songs, and the dropoff in quality is noticeable. Ma$e does his best to keep “Higher†afloat, but ultimately, it sounds like one of The-Dream’s b-sides. “Sin City†is bogged down by too much artless autotune—and too much CyHi. “Bliss†is actually a pretty lush track, with producer Hudson Mohawke providing thick synth slabs for John Legend to coo over. And then Kid Cudi gets the song “Creepers†all to himself. The one guest to get a solo song is Kid Cudi? Really?

Even the two songs in the album’s back half featuring West are largely unnecessary, with “I Don’t Like†being particularly egregious. Dubbed a “remix,†it is really just Chief Keef’s song with an additional verse. Let Keef have this one, Yeezy.

Posse albums are difficult enterprises, and the G.O.O.D. Music crew run into many of the expected problems. Old stars are shunned in favor of unworthy young guns, and the album has too many voices to offer a consistent narrative. The production is tight throughout, and half the album hits hit the mark. The other half aims for hip-hop radio, and some of it, too, may hit the mark. But Kanye proves his haters wrong in detriment to the record itself, showing that his songwriting—on top of his production—puts him on a level that his labelmates simply can’t match.