The Oddity of Cruel Summer
Man oh man has Kanye West been busy lately. Since his public gaffe at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Yeezy has hit the music scene with a vengeance. In November of 2010, he dropped the universally-acclaimed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, easily one of the best albums of the past twenty-five years. A mere nine months later, he and Jay-Z dropped Watch the Throne, undoubtedly the biggest collaboration album of all time. Now, still not two years removed from his masterpiece, Kanye is at it again.
This time around, Kanye is spreading the wealth with his teammates from his G.O.O.D. Music record label. Unless you’ve been without an internet connection for the past seven months, none of this is news to you. Last week, Cruel Summer finally had its initial release. Even through all of the delays and clearly summer-themed album being released in September, the album is not bad. I think that disappointment is even too strong of a word. It’s simply odd. Collaborative albums are a strange beast. They lack the cohesion and direction of works by a solo artist or a group. They are designed to let lesser known acts to get more attention on the shoulders of the giants they are paired with and to offer a little variety from previous material. The album does both, but I’m not sure how well it works.
You can toil with the little things (Cyhi the Prince getting too many verses), but the failure of the album really comes down to one thing; West. My complaint with Kanye is actually a compliment. His presence on any track is so powerful, so engrossing, that it tends to overshadow the rest of the song. Never has this been the case more than with Katy Perry’s single “E.T.” Without Kanye, the album version is a decent club song that gets a fair amount of airplay but falls in with the rest of her catalogue. Kanye adds an intro and the song gets an undeniable oomph! The very fact that Kanye West is featured on a song makes it more interesting. I have always hated the term “tour de force,” but is there any other way to describe him?
West is not the greatest rapper in the world. Hell, he might not even be the best rapper on the G.O.O.D. Music label. He does not possess the wordsmith capabilities of Earl Sweatshirt, the tongue tying precision of Andre 3000, or the cult-like purity of MF Doom. What he does have is an undeniable bravado. A machismo. West does not ease his way into any song- he kicks open the doors and makes himself the centerpiece. Can you find a song featuring West on Cruel Summer where his verse is not the most memorable? I felt much the same way on Watch the Throne. I know many people disagree with me, but it really seemed like Jay-Z was forced into the background on every track due to Kanye’s tenacity. This is Jay-Z we’re talking about! Does Cyhi the Prince stand a chance? I think this played the biggest part in Nicki Minaj’s early accolades. Her performance on “Monster” may be evidence of the one and only time West’s verse was upstaged by a fellow performer on a track. Obviously, this let us set a standard for Minaj that she didn’t even try to meet.
This is possibility the album’s greatest strength. Even though it is composed mostly of lesser known acts, West’s bombastic braggadocio is still there to carry it along. However, when West exits stage right, the album becomes unavoidably dull and hollow. These other pawns are forced to hold down the fort in the absence of the king. The tracks not featuring West just fade into obscurity for me. Part of this may be due to the fact that “Sin City” is one of the worst tracks ever recorded ever and Big Sean’s verse on “Mercy” being the dumbest rap lyrics not spoken by Taco Bennett that I have heard in some time. For the rest of them, I’m just twiddling my thumbs and wondering when Mr. West is coming back.
I do think this is a tremendous strength for West and speaks volumes for him as a performer. Not everyone thrives as a team player. West is clearly more of a Michael Jordan than a Magic Johnson. As someone who incessantly compares himself to Michael Jackson, he should understand the travails of needing to break away from a group to be solo. That’s not to say that he doesn’t thrive well with others, he just needs to be the one taking the final shot. Look at “Gone” off of his album Late Registration for a textbook example. West gets the ball rolling with the first verse, dishes it over to Cam’Ron and Consequence (who?) for the middle act but that takes it back drives the song to an exhilarating climax. That’s how it’s done. The guy is the Mariano Rivera of rappers, not Rafael Betancourt. The verses are still there on Cruel Summer. Look no further than “New God Flow.” Ye delivers what I consider to be one of his finest verses ever, but it is inexplicably sandwiched between two verses from Pusha T. Unforgivable. The ending of this particular verse is so triumphant that it gives me goosebumps every time. The drum beat goes into overdrive and Kanye brings down the rhymes as if he is hurling thunder from the sky. How on earth is the song supposed to continue for another two minutes after that?
The best comparison I could come up with was Heath Ledger’s unforgettable performance in The Dark Knight. Like West, it was immensely captivating and commanded attention. It was almost as if it was too good. As I watch The Dark Knight to this day, I find myself waiting for the scenes with The Joker and being relatively uninterested with everything else. It’s a gift that also becomes a curse. But man is it awesome when they’re onscreen.