This post has been corrected. See below for details.
“Cruel Summer,” the new compilation from Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint, sets an intense mood from the start. Were this a novel, R. Kelly’s sweet voice would be in the first scene: “Let me see you put your middle fingers up to the world,” he says to his flock on “To the World,” and you can almost feel the collective venom.
The first word out of Kanye West’s mouth is more direct: a 12-letter vulgarity. The sweetest Kelly line in the song is, and I’m paraphrasing, “I’m burnin’ stuff up tonight.” Chicago is apparently burning.
An hourlong presentation of West’s musical line, “Cruel Summer” is a sonic runway show (West describes it as “a ghetto opera”) on which his taste in rappers is on full display, and for the most part they’re spitting poison.
A cast of rappers, many Chicagoan, are represented: West, Kid Cudi, Pusha T, Big Sean, Chief Keef, Common, 2 Chainz and others splatter the canvas with verbiage. Vocalists include Kelly, Marsha Ambrosius, and new G.O.O.D. signee Teyana Taylor, who combine on the 12 tracks to temper some of the more incendiary boasts and threats.
“I Don’t Like” blazes the hottest, a toe-curling journey into a Chicago that in 2012 has witnessed a steep rise in murders due to escalated gang violence. Featuring 17-year-old lightning-rod rapper Chief Keef, who recently made news when he celebrated the murder of a rival via Twitter (he later claimed that his Twitter feed had been hacked), the track features him offering a laundry list of things he doesn’t like, including snitches, bitches, and fake Guccis. He also pops out one of the most snarling “bang bang” gunshot sound this side of KRS-One’s “9 mm” trigger click with Boogie Down Productions (released a few years before Keef was born).
“We hanging out the windows, about to make this a Suge night,” West sings later in “I Don’t Like,” referencing the Death Row Records founder Suge Knight, and it’s easy to imagine the G.O.O.D. posse rolling down South Halstead in party mode.
Musically, this is a West-directed endeavor through and through, filled with magnetically minimal tracks crafted by him and producers Hudson Mohawke, Hit-Boy, Cool & Dre, and others.
I’m still digesting the record, but one of the most striking tracks on first listen is the Dan Black-produced, Kid Cudi-starring “Creepers.” Featuring a sneaky, slithery beat and Cudi’s sing-song rap technique, it rolls along like a runaway train, pushing forward as though moving through darkened tunnels.
As for West? He rhymes on eight tracks, swapping verses most successfully with Pusha T on “Mercy” (one of the summer’s biggest hits) and on “Clique” with Jay-Z and Big Sean. The latter track sounds like a lost Neptunes jam from 2004; it starts soft and quiet, then bangs for a four-measure burst, then falls into an electro-thumping joyride that wobbles for five thrilling minutes.
Jay rhymes about doubling money and running with LeBron James, about the brotherhood at the highest levels of society. West is so plugged in that he’s rubbing elbows with the CIA: “I’m talking George Tenet, I seen him the other day,” brags West (if true, this is indeed impressive). In the track, “Tenet” asks West about his Maybach -- “he said he had the same.” But apparently the former CIA director didn’t get all the options, which prompts West to say, “You know white people: Get money, don’t spend it.”
Toward the end of the track -- and throughout his verses -- West is typically open with his emotions and his reality (even if all the money talk remains tiresome). He even goes so far as to rap that he “went through deep depression when my mama passed/suicide, what kind of talk is that?” He finds comfort now, he says, through his clique.
This truth is evident throughout “Cruel Summer,” which offers proof that West’s Chicago posse has cemented its place as one of the most formidable cliques in the world.
Note: The original version of this post misspelled the name Kid Cudi in its first appearance, and also spelled LeBron James’ first name wrong. They have been corrected above.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit