Cruel Summer offers a start in stark contrast to that of the last crew compilation of note, Maybach Music Group’s Self Made 2. Whereas their opener showcased everyone on the roster (plus Kendrick Lamar) in a lengthy lead in, the G.O.O.D. Music set is ushered in with “To The World,” where R. Kelly’s victorious vocals and a symphonic backdrop are punctuated by a 40-second verse from Kanye West where he declares himself the “God of Rap.” As the album progresses, it becomes clear that this beginning is a reflection of the team hierarchy and thus a reflection of its output. Where Rick Ross (even while appearing on most songs) found a way to play the back, using SM2 as a presentation tool and platform, Kanye is consistently front and center here. Yeezy is on eight of the 12 joints. And he should be. These are Cruel Summer’s best songs.
Though he surely was an integral part of the cultivation of each song on the album—and, more likely than not, from the way people speak of him, of it’s every detail—Kanye’s physical presence proves the major factor in the outcome of tracks. Those with him flourish; those where he can’t be found end up, indeed, lacking—not on the whole, but in the context of the project. “Creepers,” Kid Cudi’s solo endeavor, and “Bliss,” a John Legend and Teyana Taylor duet, seem awkwardly slapped onto the end of the album, as if to showcase the non-traditionalist members of the crew. Pusha T and The-Dream don’t recapture the rawness of “Dope Bitch” and “Exodus 23:1” with “Higher,” though Ma$e’s uninspired showing doesn’t help the effort.
That still leaves a healthy batch of impressive, often incredible music. The first four songs may be four of the year’s best: the Chi-town pairing on “To The World” and previously released singles “Clique,” “Mercy” and “New God Flow.”
On the whole and on cuts where he shares the stage, ’Ye still manages to grab the spotlight by consistently kicking rhymes both bolstered by and grounded in more passion, vigor and candor than those of his counterparts. Even as he’s aged, and his career and circumstances have evolved, and bathing luxury becomes more commonplace, Kanye has yet to abandon the openness and therapeutic elements of his music. That fact rings true here, too (“Went through, deep depression when my momma passed/Suicide, what kinda talk is that,” he rhymes on “Clique”; “It’s hard preachin’ the gospel to the slums lately/So I had to put the church on the drums, baby,” he waxes on “The One”). The rest of the G.O.O.D. family, though, is less adept at the practice—though there are glimpses, and the entire roster is talented (just not Kanye-talented), so most stay afloat with technical skills.
And then, of course, there is the issue of reconciling how to digest an album where four of the first six songs and five of the total twelve were released well in advance of the project. The prism through which to view the album is distorted by the leaks, so the set’s rich color isn’t as immediately visible as it would have been otherwise, or will be over time. It’s hard to hold the fact that the album’s best songs have already been committed to memory against it, but it’s equally as hard not to.
For anything involving Kanye West, there’s an uphill battle against what have proven to be reasonably lofty expectations. We expect perfection, classics, or something closely bordering on those levels of excellence from him. So when there’s a project involving him that, like this one, doesn’t quite hit those marks, it becomes a bit of a disappointment. Even if it is better than nearly everything else out. And that last fact cannot be forgotten. —Adam Fleischer (@AdamXXL)