On Real 92.3 in Los Angeles on Friday morning, Kanye West revealed the lead single for an apparently imminent Cruel Winter album, the Cruel Summer follow-up that may or not actually come to fruition (quick ranking of Kanye vaporware: Good Ass Job > Turbo Grafx 16 > Watch the Throne 2 > Cruel Winter). While the Cruel franchise is, in theory, meant to highlight GOOD Music artists, the new song features three and a half ATL rappers: a dextrous 2 Chainz, a cocky Quavo, and a fresh-out-the-pen Gucci Mane ready to fade more Gucci clones than the NYPD in Chinatown. Also, Desiigner.
The song—half the internet’s calling it “Champions,” the other half “Round and Round,” and West hasn’t weighed in yet—is all booming keyboards and snare rolls. It fits the Atlanta boys best. Yo Gotti, of nearby Memphis, also comes through with a well-matched verse, while Travis Scott warbles a chorus that will be booming out of car stereos as soon as this song is released exclusively on Tidal. Kanye MCs, sure, but he’s a master of ceremonies the way LL Cool J is at the Grammys. And by all indications that’s a role that Kanye, turning 39 next week, is happy to fill. (After all, one of his many world-beating goals is to get post-rap ATLien Young Thug honored at that awards show, not just him and Jay in a suit.)
Mr. West’s fleeting fascination of the moment is Atlanta rap. And it’s worth noting, because the best way to gauge the shifting winds of Yeezy Season is to observe the rappers whom Kanye places in his entourage. When he was a Chicago upstart, he reserved album guest spots for close friends (put respeck on GLC’s name), local legends (Common is the only person to get his own song on a Yeezy LP) and corporately controlled Roc-A-Fella endorsements (Jay’s “Never Let Me Down” verse was lifted from the recycle bin). Then, there was the curious Graduation period, when Kanye became both mega-nerd and insufferable bro simultaneously. How can you plan a black geek supergroup with Lupe Fiasco and Pharrell while guest starring on Entourage the very same year? Drop your third straight album with a no. 1 single, that’s how.
Post-808s, Kanye the Genius started aggressively farming mini-Ye’s to solidify his own legend, and somehow J.Cole emerged as the most successful rapper out of that scrum. But since then, Ye’s style has felt increasingly amorphous. Sometimes, he’s blasting a flamethrower at the BRIT Awards with Skepta and two dozen other grime rappers as Taylor Swift feigns comprehension. Other times, he’s singing campfire songs with Paul McCartney or atoning for his bleached-asshole sins with Kirk Franklin. Now, he’s booking studio time with buzzy Atlanta talents Migos and Lil Yachty while looking as creepy as humanly possible. With his magnum opus enshrined in the hip-hop pantheon and his massive celebrity secure through marriage, Kanye can pretty much assemble whatever Avengers-esque assortment of artists he pleases — and it won’t fundamentally change our understanding of him.