Kanye West rose to prominence as a producer with a warm, soulful style rooted in the sum of black music’s storied past, but as he’s evolved steadily from scrappy underdog to world-conquering mega-star West’s sound has grown colder and his universe has both expanded and contracted. West’s ambition remains Herculean and his worldview continental (it’s no coincidence Jay-Z and Kanye famously performed a single with Paris in the title as the grueling climax to their Watch The Throne concerts), but everything is filtered through the funhouse mirror of West’s own outsized ego. The eagerly anticipated compilation Cruel Summer is technically a vehicle for the artists on West’s G.O.O.D Music vanity label, but it is first and foremost a vehicle for West. And his penchant for riling up the media is as sharp as ever, as evidenced by the press Cruel Summer received well before its release for provocative lines involving West’s new girlfriend Kim Kardashian, Kardashian’s ex-beau Kris Humphries, and Mitt Romney. It’s tempting to see these headline-grabbing turns of phrase as naked in their calculation, but West is one of pop culture’s most sincere attention hogs; his lyrics can be as timely and designed to get noticed as Tweets but also just as ephemeral.
The problem is that on this album, West, who raps on most of the its 12 tracks, often seems disconnected from anything beyond his ego; the rapper-producer’s grounding in the past has become compromised by his obsession with the keeping his finger on the pulse of the present as it hurtles into the future. Cruel Summer often has the sneering quality of cool kids showing off: Early tracks like “Clique” (with West, Jay-Z, and Big Sean) and “Mercy” (with West, Big Sean, Pusha T, and 2 Chainz) are sleek and snotty but fundamentally empty. The album picks up with “New God Flow,” in part because it features West, Pusha T, and Ghostface Killah at their most passionate and engaged, but also because it’s the track most indebted to hip-hop’s past. Cruel Summer is a compilation that feels like an unusually crowded solo album, but West’s affiliates don’t share his gift for fusing self-aggrandizement with soul-searching reflection.
West hasn’t managed to gain the world without losing some of his soul. Like a mixtape, Cruel Summer ends with West, G.O.O.D. Music colleagues Pusha T, and Big Sean, and heavyweight guest Jadakiss tag-teaming a hot track, in this case Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like.” This remix serves as an unfortunate reminder that before he became a superstar West bared his soul and showcased his ever-increasing production skills on a series of often transcendent mixtapes rich in the melody, warmth, and cohesion Cruel Summer lacks. With Cruel Summer, Kanye’s corralled an impressive roster of allies and contemporaries to make a sleek, state-of-the-art album that’s not half as good as one of those more modest old offerings.