It’s not surprising that giving one Kanye all that power results in a generally successful album. What’s surprising is the way Cruel Summer succeeds. On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch The Throne, bigger was always better. Here, the most entertaining tracks are the minimalist ones, and it’s once you dig into the seemingly grand songs that they crumble under the weight of Kanye’s self-indulgence. But as West challenges on “Cold”: “If you can do it better than me, then you do it.” The man has a point.
Opening cut “To The World” is the musical equivalent of horns blaring as the king emerges to greet the commoners, with R. Kelly in the role of bugle player. Then we’re hit with a string of focused posse cuts comprising “Clique,” “Mercy” and “New God Flow,” each of which may be the best rap song of the year.
On “Clique,” Kanye, Big Sean and Jay-Z skip rocks across Hit-Boy‘s aqueous beat, with West delivering one of his more thematically complex verses, and Jay sounding even more invigorated than he did on Throne. As for Big Sean, he has the gall (the gall!) to start the song off by calling himself B-I-G, setting the scene for Cruel Summer‘s astronomical levels of swagger.
And Kanye is in another galaxy in that regard, with several of his verses feeling more like songs within songs. This is most obviously illustrated on “Mercy,” wherein he dispenses with the foreboding beat for his own sleek, escalating electro shuffle.
And yet, try as he might to use theatrics to make sure nobody upstages him, one of the intriguing things about the record is how some of the non-Kanye parts resonate. West certainly has some killer lines, but the best verses are the work of Ghostface Killah, Jay-Z, 2 Chainz and, hell, even Big Sean.
This indicates West got the most out of the talent he assembled. But he also made some questionable decisions. Post-MBDTF, he seems to think no song can fall short of 4:30, resulting in otherwise stellar songs sporting creaky spare parts. (Why is Teyana Taylor tacked onto the end of “To the World”? Why does the album’s closing verse come from Jadakiss?)
Take “Sin City,” which starts off with a valley-scraping low end, a serviceable verse from something called Travi$ Scott and, isn’t that the yelling sample from Lana Del Rey‘s “Blue Jeans”? But then we’re subjected to a cringe-worthy stanza of def poetry for no apparent reason. Likewise, the spacey, druggy “Higher” screeches to a halt with a perplexing coda.
“The One,” meanwhile, is an extended yawn, wasting a heartfelt verse from 2 Chainz and a nimble one from Ye (in which he rhymes “my position is at the helm” with the onomatopoeic “best way to describe my whip is ‘yeaarrrm’”). In another haphazard detour, James Fauntleroy does an Auto-Tuned Frank Ocean imitation, and combined with the lyrics, it is just the wackest:
“Fuck yeah awesome / Yeah I lost some / Of my mind / And then I found peace / It was really kind / Of awesome.”
Fortunately, “Creepers” and “Bliss” right the ship with a perfect dose of inspired weirdness. On “Bliss,” Teyana Taylor and John Legend sing over a stop-start beat full of ’80s sheen and squiggly Moog lines. Just how ’80s is it? There’s an eagle screech in the background, for God’s sake.
That’s a song choice that says more about Kanye’s supreme confidence than his most boastful lyrics ever could. But rather than be content with the songs or the rhymes doing the talking, Kanye at times pummels listeners over the head with blustery tangents, like a god striking down from Olympus so the mortals will know his power. Basically, when there are two sets of footprints in the (Ibiza) sand, Kanye will rush to tell you that second set came from “The god of rap / Shittin’ on you, holy crap.” God works in mysterious ways.
The Best Song Wasn’t The Single: It was ALL the singles. Of the non-singles, the sure-to-be divisive “Bliss” is notable for a sneak attack of schmaltz that makes it this album’s “Beth/Rest.”
Pops Like: The meanest parts of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy mixed with the quietest parts of Watch The Throne.
Best Listened To: At night, when feeling on top of the world or inebriated or both.
Full Disclosure: This reviewer is not only a Kanye fan, but he’s the rare species of human who actually enjoys Yeezy’s extracurricular antics. One man’s Taylor Swift interrupter is another man’s hero.
Idolator Rating: 3.5/5
— Carl Williott