Kanye West doesn’t really do low stakes. He once identified his competition as “Michelangelo, Picasso, the pyramids,” and it’s not like you form a group with Jay-Z, name it the Throne and put a gold embossed cover on the album because you’re afraid of high expectations. So consider Cruel Summer the first real creative vacation West has taken in his illustrious career – an occasionally exhilarating, ultimately underwhelming showcase for Kanye and his friends (many of whom are signed to his G.O.O.D. Music label) to have a little fun together, shooting hoops in the backyard without anyone confusing the pickup game for the Olympics.
The album trades sonic extravagance for a largely stripped-down palette of 808 bass and tinny melodies (“Mercy,” “Cold”). Guests include a marvelously surly R. Kelly (“The whole world is a couch/ Bitch, I’m Rick James toniiiight!” he belts on “To the World”), Jay-Z (whose breezy self-regard overflows into Spanish on “Clique”) and younger comers, like 2 Chainz and Big Sean, who keep the goofy punch lines flowing. But the star is West, who bum-rushes every song he’s on like it’s someone else’s acceptance speech. His “Clique” verse is a classic head-spinner: One moment he’s slyly referencing girlfriend Kim Kardashian’s sex tape; the next he’s musing on race and wealth via an (imagined?) exchange with Bush-era CIA boss George Tenet, then eyeing real estate next to Tom Cruise’s place. There are no grand statements, but plenty of hot lines.
Listen to ‘Cruel Summer’: