Upon its release, Cruel Summer received generally lukewarm reviews from music critics, who commended its hubristic style and the tracks featuring West, but found it uneven as an album. It debuted at number two on the US Billboard 200, selling 205,000 copies in its first week. The album also reached the top 10 of charts in Australia, Canada, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. As of November 4, 2012, Cruel Summer has sold 389,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Kanye West founded the GOOD Music label in 2004. Since the label's inception, multiple acts have been signed to the label, including close collaborators of West such as Big Sean, Common, Kid Cudi, John Legend and Pusha T. West first announced plans for a GOOD Music album in October 2011 via his Twitter account, writing: "GOODMUSIC.THE ALBUM.SPRING2012". Later on May 23, 2012, the title was revealed in part with a film, Cruel Summer, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival. The album was originally slated for release on August 7, 2012, but underwent several delays.
Pusha T said that he recorded over 20 verses for the album, and a song with Big Sean and Common called "Trash Bags" that was ultimately scrapped. American rapper Azealia Banks also said that she recorded with West earlier in 2012, but her contributions were not included on the album.
Cruel Summer was made available to pre-order on the website of the Japanese branch of retail chain HMV on September 1, 2012, revealing the album's track listing as well as each track's respective performers.
The album art was designed by DONDA, West's creative agency.
"Cold", featuring DJ Khaled, was released as the album's second single. The track was then released as a single onto iTunes on April 17, 2012. Following its digital release, the song impacted urban contemporary radio on May 8, 2012. The single peaked at numbers 89 and 69 respectively on the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs singles charts.
"New God Flow", a collaboration between Pusha T and Kanye West, was released onto iTunes as the album's third single on July 21, 2012. It first premiered at the 2012 BET Awards on July 2, 2012, with West performing an a cappella version of his verse. The song peaked at number 89 on the Billboard Hot 100. "Clique", a collaboration between Kanye West, Jay-Z and Big Sean, was released as the album's fourth single on September 7, 2012. The single peaked at numbers 12 and 22 respectively on the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs singles charts.
Cruel Summer received generally lukewarm reviews from music critics. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the album received an average score of 68, based on 28 reviews. Christopher R. Weingarten of Spin felt that it is "not a cohesive crew album" and called it "a runway show of small, costly, uncomfortable missteps."Nathan Rabin, writing in The A.V. Club, said that it "feels like an unusually crowded solo album, but West’s affiliates don’t share his gift for fusing self-aggrandizement with soul-searching reflection."Slant Magazine's Ted Scheinman observed no "concept or production value to hold" the album, which he felt "isn't a Kanye album per se, but even as a high-pedigree compilation, it still falls flat." Jon Caramanica of The New York Times complimented the album's four singles for "show[ing] [West] at or near his best", but found GOOD Music's other rappers to be "a mixed bag". Jonah Weiner of Rolling Stone called the album "occasionally exhilarating, ultimately underwhelming", and observed "no grand statements, but plenty of hot lines", with West as "the star ... who bum-rushes every song he's on like it's someone else's acceptance speech".
Adam Fleischer of XXL cited the songs with West as the album's highlights. Andy Gill of The Independent viewed it as less "ambitious" than West's own albums and said that the songs "may lack grandeur, but they bring a sinister, stalking ambience that matches the blend of money, mystery and menace in the contributions of collaborators". Paul MacInnes of The Guardian wrote that his "penchant for superabundance is one of the most exhilirating [sic] things in pop music." Priya Elan of NME felt that the album is "essential" as "a cross section of the most brilliant, solipsistic mind in rap".MSN Music's Robert Christgau gave the album a "B+", indicating "remarkable one way or another, yet also flirts with the humdrum or the half-assed." He found the rapping to be clever, but plagued by a "Conspicuous Consumption Equals Authentic Negritude" philosophy, and stated, "The surprise is that the attention requires so little effort, because there's always a musical touch to keep you alert".
Rolling Stone ranked Cruel Summer number 24 on their year-end best albums list.
"Mercy" contains samples from the recording "Dust a Sound Boy", written by Denzie Beagle and Winston Riley, and performed by Super Beagle; samples from the recording "Cu-Oonuh", written by Reggie Williams and Winston Riley, and performed by Reggie Stepper; and samples from the recording "Lambo", performed by YB.
"New God Flow" contains samples of the recording "Synthetic Substitution", written by Herb Rooney, and performed by Melvin Bliss; samples of the recording "Mighty Healthy" (a capella), written by Herb Rooney, Ronald Bean, Highleigh Crizoe and Dennis Coles, and performed by Ghostface Killah; samples from the G.I. Townsend recording "Sermon Fragment", written by Townsend; and samples from "Bôdas De Sangue", written and performed by Marcos Valle.