For what its worth, Kanye West's done his best to put it off.
His label, G.O.O.D Music, is eight years old and in that time different names have come and gone (remember Fonzworth Bentley?). West teased the possibility of a crew album in 2006, when he shot a very Puffy-like video with John Legend, Common, and Consequence for “Grammy Family” (suits, speedboats, and champagne, all in black and white).
His new collaboration record, “Cruel Summer,” out Tuesday, couldn’t feel more overdue, and its timing couldn’t be more right, and not just because it’s a few days shy of fall.
The crew record — where a star rapper surrounds himself with his A-team of other rappers — is the one step you can’t skip in the rap star manual. The Notorious B.I.G. had Junior M.A.F.I.A.; Jay-Z had Roc-a-fella; Eminem had D12.
And the list goes on. One of the best records in DMX’s catalog is his collaborative effort with Ruff Ryders: “Ryde or Die Vol. 1.” And many claim Cam’ron’s work with the Diplomats on “Diplomatic Immunity” was his finest.
In the past decade or so, the notion of the rap group has gone the way of doubles tennis and tag-team wrestling. No one cares. (Quick: Can you name five rap groups that have released an album in the last five years?) But suddenly, crews are once again in vogue.
Last year, Odd Future shook up the rap landscape with the relentless posse record, “The Tape Vol 1.” and then released the follow-up earlier this year. Rick Ross did the same thing when he decided to turn rap into fantasy football, drafting young rappers like Wale and Meek Mill to his Maybach Music Group label and turning out the monstrous hits that ended up being “Self Made Vol. 1.,” the sequel to which he released earlier this summer.
Both filled an obvious void. When Rolling Stone called Odd Future “The New Wu-Tang” it was a sign of approval, but it was an indicator of how thirsty people were for a new Clan.
The ripple effect was obvious.
It made a lane for more crew records like the one New York rapper A$AP Rocky put out with his A$AP Mobb last month, “Lords Never Worry,” which might be one of the best of the crop. It’s a bunch of kids intoxicated by their own youth, recklessness, and weird sense of loyalty, but with a bleak aesthetic that was also organic. It doesn’t feel forced or manufactured, which is perhaps the greatest compliment you can pay a group record.
On “Cruel Summer,” you need a club clicker to keep track of all the people coming in and out.
From Pusha T to Kid Cudi, Big Sean to John Legend, Common to 2 Chainz, it’s hard to picture any of them being at the same party, let alone in the same group — but somehow, it makes sense.
Pusha T steals at least two songs (the Ric Flair “Woo!” on “Don’t Like (Remix)” is wild), and Sean sounds completely comfortable batting ahead of Jay-Z on “Clique.” Sneakily, “The Morning,” with its creepy D’banj hook, Raekwon cameo, and revolving door of rhymers, is one of the album’s best songs.
There’s a tug of war between West trying to showcase all the talent and still be the center of attention. He hits an egomaniacal high on “Mercy,” when the luxury-trap beat slows into a synth-soaked Scarface sample just so Kanye can make an entrance. His verse on “Clique” is twice as long as Jay-Z’s. And he stops the beat and does a “G.O.O.D Music” cheer at the end of “New God Flow.” West looms over it all, like Ross, like Tyler the Creator, like every crew’s frontman. But while every second of “Cruel Summer” sounds high quality, it never feels cohesive.
This album might not have the force-of-nature greatness as his others, but it’s the most logical step in his path. But the question remains: Now that the crew record is off his to-do list, where to next? West’s star power and credibility would have been fine with or without making this record. But it’s about more than being in first place. The crew record has and always will be about building little empires; now West has one of his own.Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.