Yesterday marked the official release of the highly anticipated, been-leaked-for-days, Kanye West–led G.O.O.D Music collective album Cruel Summer.
It's not bad.
Saying that about most albums is grounds for celebration. Singles can be good, but few albums really stand out as "not bad," with the rare few deserving the honor of being called "good." Kanye West is one of those artists who has dwelled in the elevated realm that is "great," a world unknown to most, since he began releasing albums in 2004. So to have anything associated with his name described as "not bad" is a bit of shocker.
But where did it go wrong? How can an album with five of the more notable rap songs of 2012 ("New God Flow," "Clique," "Cold," "I Don't Like (Remix)," and "Mercy," with the latter serving as the song of the summer, and arguably the year) be such a letdown? Is it musically a disappointment or is this just a byproduct of the high expectations that we have for anything Kanye West is attached to?
With all the chronicled arrogance that has been Kanye West's life, be it through tabloids, his antics, or his lyrics, the reason this album ultimately falters is because he wasn't arrogant enough. This isn't a Kanye West album, artificially presented to the world as a team-building "G.O.O.D Music" compilation, but it should have been. It being an actual record label compilation album with a "no-cut policy" is its greatest downfall.
But what's interesting about the album turning out this way is that Kanye is no stranger to the various blueprints that exist when it comes to the record label compilation album, also known as "star puts on his people in hopes that they gain some shine." After all, he helped create one of the most important ones in hip-hop history.
In October 2000, Jay-Z released The Dynasty: Roc La Familia. Yes, the album is thought of as a solo Jay-Z album, but at its heart it is a showcase for the Roc-A-Fella roster. The fifth track of this album, "This Can't Be Life" is a beautiful song, one of the more introspective songs of Mr. Carter's career, and happens to be produced by Kanye West. The song is notable, outside of the content, because while Jay is on the song, he's not the standout. That title belongs to Beanie Sigel, rapping like his life depended on it, delivering one of his all-time-best verses, on the biggest stage of his career at that point. But Jay is still on the song. And for the album, that's what is important.
The Dynasty has 16 tracks and Jay is on all 16. He may not deliver the most memorable verse on each, but he's a presence every time, illustrating two very real, obvious facts:
1. He is the leader.
2. He doesn't fully trust the rest of this crew to carry an album.
There is a third fact, though, which is less obvious. By being on every track, the success and failure of The Dynasty will ultimately fall on his shoulders. He can't take all the credit, but he also can't blame much on his supporting cast, since he's the dominating presence on the album.
Other record-label-based compilations have followed the successful blueprint partially laid out by Mr. Carter, most recently, 2009's weirdly underrated Lil Wanye–led We Are Young Money and the Rick Ross–led Self Made Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, released in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Interestingly, though they weren't billed as Wayne or Ross albums, both felt like they could have been the artist's own work, based on how often they each appear on the tracks. Only one of the 15 songs on the Young Money compilation lacks Lil Wayne, and on the two Self Made MMG disks, Rick Ross is on 11 of 15 and 10 of 14 songs. Yes, their large supporting casts fill in the gaps and pull their weight where they can, but when it comes down to it, neither would be anything without their very prominent ring leaders.
And now we're back to Cruel Summer.
With the opportunity to take this album in the direction of his choice, with plenty of successful blueprints to choose from, Kanye, ever the contrarian, chose the more team-player route. The album, already on the short end of the spectrum at 12 tracks, has five Kanye-less songs, leaving seven tracks with West, five of which rap fans were already familiar with.
12 Total Songs - 5 Kanye-less Songs = 7 Kanye Songs.
7 Kanye Songs - 5 Kanye Singles = 2 New Kanye Songs.
And wouldn't you know it, of the seven previously unheard songs on Cruel Summer, two are truly worth multiple repeat listens, and they're the ones featuring Kanye: the R. Kelly–assisted opener "To the World," and "The One," a song that's weakest aspect is its raps, but is undeniably infectious due to the drum-line background and Marsha Ambrosius's hook. Of the remaining five, there are the six minutes of chill, Kid Cudi's "Creepers" and Teyana Taylor and John Legend's "Bliss," both of which are good songs (especially Cudi, who's in full Animal Collective mode), but feel completely out of place on the album and are rudely shelved together at the end, and then the three posse tracks placed at the heart of the album (tracks 5, 7, and 8), which is unfortunate, seeing as they're quite unremarkable. "The Morning" and "Higher" are two songs that I've listened to about 10 times and might never voluntarily listen to again, and "Sin City," the album's true low point, is a track that, to put it plainly, never should have been made.
So what now? Since Kanye didn't follow the blueprint of his compilation predecessors, one can argue that he doesn't deserve as much blame for this hit-and-miss album, since he was quite successful on the tracks in which he made appearances. While this is true, and might not truly tarnish his almost flawless discography, it does reflect on him as the leader of a collective.
On The Dynasty, Jay is the head coach. On Cruel Summer, Kanye is an intramural flag football captain.
He's the guy who registered the team, happens to be the best, but also is extremely conscious of making sure that everyone's playing, and, most notably, that he's not playing too much. What ultimately happens to this team? They have the most fun, they get along the best, they're good, and, at the end of the season, they lose in the finals. In the end, Cruel Summer is Kanye's stab at choosing group fun and friendship over simply winning alone. While there's nothing inherently wrong with that philosophy, this compilation album was yet another chance for Kanye to grow out of the shadow of his mentor, but that was not the end result. He took a different route to making a compilation album than Jay, but this may have been one of those times in which he should have stuck to the script.
On Cruel Summer, too many people were given too much shine too often. And with Kanye's absence on songs on which his participation was crucial, the listener was often left with nothing to go on, be it a triumphant Ye start, or a whirlwind Yeezy final verse. One has to admire the sprinkle of modesty that was his approach to constructing this album, but come Cruel Summer 2: Back in the Habit, it might be time to shed that modesty (and a few players) and reinvigorate some of that cocky bravado that he carries with him in seemingly every other walk of life. We'd all appreciate it.