This isn’t G.R.E.A.T. Music. It’s G.O.O.D. Music. Cruel Summer isn’t and wasn’t ever going to be Kanye’s bid for immortality. He’s been there. He’s done that. Kanye doesn’t need to worry about prestige. Kanye calls himself the god of rap and nobody argues. Domo Genesis (of Odd Future) said in an interview with Pitchfork, “I think only one person is cool, and that’s Kanye.” Even President Obama is a fan. “I like Kanye. He’s a Chicago guy. Smart. He’s very talented. He’s a jackass. But he’s very talented,” said the POTUS in an interview with The Atlantic.
If Kanye had ever been interested in art for art’s sake, he’s not now. “I told you mother-f#@kers it was more than the music,” he raps on “Cold.” And Kanye is right—there is more than music at stake here. First and foremost, CS defines the aesthetic and the political views of Kanye’s clique, a group of hip-hop and R&B artists both on and outside of the G.O.O.D. Music record label. Kanye uses the record as his chance to tell (rather than show) the world what he wants from rap music, what deserves his seal of approval and what’s that “shit [he] don’t like.” As a result, the seven tracks that Kanye performs on complicate and nuance his particular brand of semi-religious hedonism—moreso than all of the tracks on Watch the Throne.
Kanye’s persona on Throne was shamelessly materialistic. On CS he wants his Lamborghini Murcielago and he wants us to have mercy toward him for wanting it. Kanye spends most of the album trying to explain why it’s okay for him and other celebrity black musicians to live ostentatiously. Each of Kanye’s tracks adds a new layer to his argument for black opulence. On “Clique” he spits: “You know white people get money don’t spend it/ … / I’d rather buy 80 gold chains than go ign’ant/ I know Spike Lee gonna kill me but lemme finish/ Blame it on the pigment we livin’ no limits.” Spike Lee has long spoken out against the way black celebrities often depict themselves as brazenly aimed toward material goods. For Kanye and his clique, black people who have made it out of the slums have earned the chance to showcase their wealth. Kanye continues that argument on “New God Flow”: “Aww man [I] made something from nothin’/ … I’m from the 312/ where cops don’t come through and dreams don’t come true/ like there the god go in his Murcielago.”
But it’s on “The One”—a track that gets mostly lost in the shuffle of the album—that Kanye really explains how Kanye views his role with G.O.O.D. Music. Here he is The One, a Christ/prophet figure whose main mission is to teach inner-city black people to rise up: “It’s been hard preachin’ the gospel to the slums lately/ so I had to put the church on the drums, baby.” Of course, Kanye’s is a strange kind of gospel. The album mentions Jesus twice, but both times it’s in the context of Kanye’s “Jesus piece,” an absurd bejeweled ornament. As he says on “The Morning,” “G.O.O.D. woulda been God except I added more 0’s.” Kanye’s religious views are inextricable from his views about money and black power. His church on the drums preaches that black people need to avoid being “slaves to the funds.”
On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye made himself into a Greco-Roman emperor. On Throne, he and Jay-Z were feudal lords. By the end of CS, Kanye has the power of Vito Corleone. He’s already called Roc Nation “la familia” and referenced Francis Ford Coppola, but on “Don’t Like” his Sicilian attitude takes on a different force. He most hates frauds, sneaks and snitches. He hates the media, hipsters and those who have made their money easily, without having to overcome great odds. (His most damning critique of Romney is “Mitt Romney don’t pay no tax”). He’s built his group of loyal followers replete with some of black music’s most powerful yet questionably artistic forces—R. Kelly, Chief Keef and 2 Chainz. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Kanye’s sold out. If we’re to believe him, Kanye’s audience for CS is the poor black of Chicago and other cities, and G.O.O.D. Music is filled with artists who have wide, especially urban, commercial influence.
It’s a good thing there are side stories to Cruel Summer because, judged as an album, there’s not a lot to get excited about. “New God Flow” is the album’s best track: Kanye is at his finest and most impassioned, and Pusha-T and Kanye have good chemistry. “Cold” and “Clique” are solid radio hits. As a rule of thumb though, the tracks that Kanye doesn’t appear on are uninteresting. “Bliss” is a strangely saccharine song, a hip-hop ballad of sorts, but it shouldn’t be on the same album as Kanye and Jay-Z. “Sin City” is a flop: its intoned verses come across as funny rather than epic. Kid Cudi’s “Creepers” is another head-scratcher. Take out Kanye’s verses, and there’s nothing here that ties the songs together as an album rather than a collection of songs.