Cruel Summer is either much better or much worse than you think it is. Worse if all you're going off is the pedigree and the premise: Kanye West and his merry gang of multitalented, megafamous friends — including but definitely not limited to R. Kelly, The-Dream, Jay-Z, Pusha T, Big Sean, Teyana Taylor, and the excellent, ascendant producer Hit-Boy, all assembled under West's G.O.O.D. label — goofing around with and bouncing off each other for a late-summer side project, a crew album on steroids. Or better if you're leveraging the record against what you've heard about it over the last couple months: the delayed release, the enormous hype, the middling reviews. Either way: Expectations are a bitch, y'all.
Because if you're Kanye West, biggest ego and biggest name in hip-hop, bad is relative, but G.O.O.D. can never be good enough. And the truth is, while Summer is nowhere near what it could be, it's also much, much better than 80 percent of what tends to show up on commercial rap radio.
Sure, it's overproduced, uneven, occasionally lazy, and even embarrassing (suffice it to say there's a spoken-word interlude involved). But just as often it's exhilarating, all these little moments of Westian genius laid down without apology or irony, suddenly making it all worth it: the triumphal, gospel-inflected vocals on "The One"; the chilly 808s (hold the heartbreaks) on "Mercy"; the eruptive snarl of "Cold," quite possibly West's best rap in years; the lurid lyrical pleasure of Chief Keef's "Don't Like." Summer certainly isn't perfect, but it's, well, pretty damn good. (G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam)