When the reigning flowster and impresario of hip-hop drops a compilation album and calls it Cruel Summer, questions abound. First: Why is Kanye West so bummed out? His best buds join him on every track; his record label, G.O.O.D. Music, appears to be flourishing; and the lyrics themselves suggest no seasonal shortage of groupies, "foreign cars," cash, or refined strains of weed. True, West complains that his "mink is dragging on the floor," but the guy must have an in-house seamstress at this point, and anyway, mink after Memorial Day is just sort of gauche. More important: Why is the music itself so insistently joyless? Cruel Summer is 12 tracks of blinged-out bric-a-brac, featuring many of the artists in West's expanding stable, but lacking either concept or production value to hold the thing together.
"New God Flow" features a simple but groovy piano backdrop, and Ghostface Killah supplies a strong verse to balance Pusha T's more bland offering, but here as elsewhere, the time-consuming symphonics that produced "Lost in the World," from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, give way to sparser and more pedestrian arrangements. "Clique" features an energetic, rhythm-flipping verse from Jay-Z, while West, perhaps making a play to the tween-girl market, repeats the titular word several dozen times. On "Cold," West exorcises some of his amorous demons over a DJ Khaled beat, making explicit reference to his split from Amber Rose without forgetting to note that he once dined with Anna Wintour. Here, at least, composition-by-Rolodex is more than the standard reflex: It's a way, conscious or not, of insulating 'Ye from potential points of pain.
West is still working out the contradictions in his evangelist-cum-hustler persona, comparing himself to Jesus, Moses, and Mike Tyson, but even as his label protégés back him up at every turn, he still sounds insecure, at times resentful. Some of this indignation may well be political: On "To the World," a collaboration with R. Kelly set to inviting pizzicato synth strings, West gripes that "Mitt Romney don't pay no tax." Elsewhere, West and company refer to Ronald Reagan, Sarah Palin, and, implausibly, George Tenet. West wisely stays mum on Dubya this time around, but retains an aversion to needless death—whether in the streets of south Chicago, the New Orleans Superdome, or the back alleys of Fallujah.
Big Sean leavens the heavy moments as often as he's allowed. On "Mercy," over a Fuzzy Jones/Super Beagle reggae sample, Sean puns on a woman's posterior in the Ludacris vein: "Built a house up on that ass/That's an ass-tate/Roll my weed on it/That's an ass tray." John Legend, meanwhile, croons over what sounds like '80s keytar on "Bliss," and Kid Cudi offers a melodic, melancholic flow on "Creepers"—more free-associative than narrative, but one of the album's high points.
West may have gone from "the projects one day to Project Runway," but he didn't do so by simply cobbling together albums with whatever happened to be on hand. "Fantasy" may just be West's word for "concept." But the music itself (with West, we can't just talk "beats") remains his substance. Cruel Summer isn't a Kanye album per se, but even as a high-pedigree compilation, it still falls flat.