Jay-Z, left, and Kanye West, right, on stage at Staples Center December… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)
"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, fellow Chicagoan R. Kelly's sweet voice would introduce the first chapter: "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 taste the impending venom.
The first word out of Kanye West's mouth is more direct: a 12-letter vulgarity, and from that invective springs a series of verses that over 12 tracks travels the world with some attention given to his hometown of Chicago What's up in Chicago? One piece of evidence is delivered by Kelly in "To the World" (and I'm paraphrasing): "I'm burnin' stuff up tonight." Or, as West describes one recent evening in "I Don't Like": "We hanging out the windows, about to make this a Suge night," he raps, referring to the late Death Row Records founder Suge Knight. It's easy to imagine the G.O.O.D. posse — short for "Getting Out Our Dreams" — rolling down South Halsted in party mode.
In fact, Chicago was on fire this summer in the worst sense, a cruel season of violence on the city's South Side, resulting in a murder spike that saw 308 deaths by the end of the July, up more than 30% from last year. A reported war between rival gangs is one cause. But unfortunately, despite its title, and a few lines about it on "New God Flow," Kanye's mind is mostly elsewhere.
"Cruel Summer" does, however, further introduce his would-be music clique, one of a number of chart-topping label/collectives in the hip hop world currently vying for attention. Though adept at rhyming, these men aren't interested in reporting from the trenches about what Compton group N.W.A. described as "the strength of street knowledge."
This is the first time West has issued a compilation of G.O.O.D. artists, but there's little identity to the G.O.O.D. crew on "Cruel Summer." He describes the compilation on "To the World" as "a ghetto opera," but if that's the case it's an incredibly tangled and convoluted story. It's more like a sonic runway show, on which his taste in lyrical patterns is on full display. The players in his extended Midwest clique includeKelly, Chief Keef, Common, John Legend and Big Sean.
Added into the mix are Bronx-by-way-of-Virginia Beach rapper Pusha T, 2 Chainz of Atlanta, fellow Georgian Cyhi the Prynce, Brooklyn's Jay-Z. 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.
This big clique — honorary member Jay-Z calls it "the Dream Team meets the Supreme Team/And all our eyes green it only means one thing" — is one of a number in the rap world teaming to dominate the charts. The hottest right now is Lil Wayne's Young Money crew, whose most prominent members Wayne, Nicki Minaj and Drake represented together at the recent MTV VMAs and swap rhymes on tracks. Rick Ross' Maybach Music Group holds steady in Miami. Los Angeles collective Odd Future is an underground force.
In fact, from Wu-Tang Clan to the Cash Money and No Limit posses to the Eminem and Dr. Dre's Shady/Aftermath, hip-hop has found safety — and identity — in numbers. West ran with Jay-Z and his budding Roc-a-Fella empire as he was rising and has used his fame and money to build brands in music production, fashion and beyond.
The G.O.O.D. crew seems a bit confused. "The Morning" addresses artistic creativity and the selling of one's soul — but ends with the financially ill-advised boast by Cyhi the Prince that he "can't wait to get that black American Express/So I can show them white folks how to really pull the race card."
"I Don't Like" blazes the hottest — and it's the track that West has the least to do with. It was originally released in the spring by Chief Keef, a 17-year-old from south Chicago, whose brittle, heartless raps are notable for not only the coldness of their delivery but for the ways Keef has behaved away from the mike. He recently made news when he celebrated the murder of a rival via Twitter (he later claimed that his Twitter feed had been hacked), and you can hear that menace within. West remixes it to surround Keef with members of his own crew.
Its inclusion on the record, though, feels gratuitous, an easy way to stay relevant in a ghetto world far removed from West's current Los Angeles, couture and Kardashian life. Still, the track is a toe-curling journey into gangland Chicago.
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 — though few rewrite any rules. One of the most striking is the Dan Black-produced, Kid Cudi-starring "Creepers." Featuring a sneaky, slithery beat and Cudi's sing-song rap, it rolls along like a runaway train, pushing forward as though moving through darkened tunnels.