The movie Prometheus contains a scene that I find particularly salient when discussing the music of Kanye West. The hero, Charlie, a smartass Alpha-Scientist who only exists in works of fiction, is talking to David, a creepy robot-man. David asks Charlie why humanity invented creepy robot people, and Charlie answers, “We made you because we could.” David then goes, “Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?”
Now, imagine Kanye West as Charlie, and his music as David. Kanye makes music that no other human being could, because they don’t have the vision, the sense of scope, or the tangential relationship to sanity that Ye does. Basically, he makes the music he makes because he can. But does that mean he should? In Prometheus, David the Robot ends up fucking over an entire spaceship of humans and accidentally setting the groundwork for the entire series of Alien movies. Just as society in Prometheus probably shouldn’t have created David the Robot, Kanye West probably should not have created Cruel Summer, even though he’s the only guy who possibly could have. The album is impressive, sure. Six of the songs are as good as any other six good Kanye West songs from any era, but seriously, fuck Cruel Summer. Fuck it all over the place. Fuck it in space. Fuck it underwater. Fuck it next to a plate of green eggs and ham. Do not worry about the logistics of fucking a collection of songs that you may not own a physical copy of. Fuck it anyway.
The basic idea behind Cruel Summer is that it’s a Kanye West album, but not quite. It exists under his brand, but functions as something of a showcase of both Yeezy’s production work as well as a platform for his G.O.O.D. Music roster. It’s sort of like one of Rick Ross’s Maybach Music compilation albums or that Young Money/Cash Money collection from a while back, a label showcase that could have just as well been given out for free at the G.O.O.D. Music megatour that’s seemingly unavoidable given this album’s impending success. Its existence is a statement in and of itself, as if Kanye’s trying to point out that as much as people go apeshit over his rapping, he came up as a producer first and that’s still what he does best. In a way, taking a step away from the mic is an act of hubris on West’s part: he wants us to find the greatness in his work, even when he’s not around to vocally remind us to look for it. It is in this gesture that Cruel Summer falls flat on its face.
The problems with Cruel Summer are three-fold. It’s frontloaded, for one, to the point that if you ranked the songs on it from best to worst you’d end up with a list that looked damn similar to the tracklisting, maybe with the “I Don’t Like” remix falling somewhere in the middle. Two, there’s nary a surprise to be found on it. Most of the great moments, other than “To The World,” “The Morning” and Ghostface’s last-minute verse on “New God Flow,” are known entities. This robs us of the wonder of hearing stunners like “Dark Fantasy,” “Gorgeous” and “All Of The Lights” within four tracks of each other, as we got on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
The third—and most glaring—problem with Cruel Summer is that most of the rappers on the album who aren’t Kanye West can’t hold a fucking candle to the guy. There’s a certain brand of coked-out, self-knowing crazy that Kanye West brings to his material, and unless you understand what you’re going for, it’s hard to replicate. R. Kelly can do it, as he proves on “To The World.” I mean, he sings, “The whole world is a couch/And bitch I’m Rick James tonight!” during his verse, but he does so angelically, as if he’s quoting the gospel. 2 Chainz pulls it off as well, but he’s been in the game so long that he’s learned to dumb himself down to the point where only an idiot couldn't realize he’s secretly a genius. Pusha T and Big Sean sort of succeed in Kanye-ish rapping, but Pusha T lacks the inherent star power of West, and Sean, whose goatee suggests that as a child he was adopted by a wild pack of strippers, is only good at rapping about butts. Otherwise, he sounds thin and corny.
It’s not that Kanye’s not trying here. The album is sequenced beautifully, with each beat slowly bleeding into the next to the point where it gets hard to tell where one song stops and the next begins. This is a good thing. The surprises here are myriad, though not all pleasant. My jaw dropped when I heard a distinctly enunciated, “One two, one two, guess who back again?” I didn’t need the Harlem shout-out of the next line to realize it was Ma$e, back from whatever mountain he’d been trying to talk to God at. But when Kid Cudi does his sing-rap thing on “Creepers” and just keeps doing it throughout the entire song, you wonder about West’s quality control instincts. The song seriously sounds like Cudi chugged sixteen Smirnoff Ices and then decided he wanted to make a track. It’s completely different when compared to the rest of the album, but it feels workmanlike in its own way, anonymous even, just as John Legend, Teyana Taylor, CyHi da Prince, Travi$ Scott and The-Dream all feel anonymous, despite the fact that each artist is capable of, if not greatness, at least aggressive goodness. There’s just something missing from many of the tracks on Cruel Summer, and it’s hard not to blame Kanye for this deficiency.
As a successful artist, Kanye’s only has one gear. He’s a quintessential try-hard, putting in the maximum amount of effort to get the maximum amount of returns. But on Cruel Summer, he’s coasting. On “To the World,” Kanye quotes Rick Ross with a doubled-up cry of, “These niggas tryna hold me back!” The only thing is that these days, nobody’s trying to hold Kanye West back. He’s got no challenges anymore. He’s got the Grammies, the girl of his dreams, the 10.0 from Pitchfork. Two presidents have publicly commented on his actions. For the egomaniac that Kanye more than probably is, that’s nearly Illuminati-level validation. And that, ultimately, might be the hidden benefit of Kanye West deciding to jettison the totally unnecessary piece of dogshit that is Cruel Summer into the world. He’s tripped himself up, yet again given people a reason to doubt his prowess as an artist. The next thing he comes up with will probably be goddamn perfect. It has to be. Or Kanye West will end up proving the haters wrong by being the first human to ever spontaneously combust. If that happens, he’ll probably die happy, because at least he’ll have succeeded in yet again doing something that nobody else could do.