Cruel Winter Is Coming: A Complete Retrospective

Kanye West released a brand new track this morning. It’s called Champions and it features Travis Scott, Quavo (Migos), Big Sean, Yo Gotti, Gucci Mane, 2 Chainz & Desiigner. Kanye, ever the curator, has the smallest feature on the record. Instead he acts as the chain connecting it all together, the godfather of 2016’s biggest rap titans.

It’s huge. It’s absolutely massive, musically, lyrically, the weight of this collab, and the fact that this is the very first instance of real, tangible Cruel Winter material since it was first rumoured four years ago. Clocking in at just under six minutes, it’s one hell of a rap anthem, a celebration of all that is unholy.

Let’s break down the song before we go any further.

Quavo, one third of Migos kicks it off with bars about his hundred thousand dollar chandelier and why the ladies love him. It sets the tone for everything to come –  get that gauze ready because that tone is straight fucking fire.

Travis (and later, Desiigner) comes in next with a stupidly catchy hook, which, interestingly, he wrote three years ago.

Thus, we can ascertain that this is one hell of a long-running collaboration, most obviously because of Gucci Mane’s line: “Now that Gucci’s home, it’s over for you Gucci clones.” In his short but sweet verse, Kanye tells us that he’s enjoyed a successful 2016; he’s “fresh out of debt,” no doubt referencing his controversial February tweet asking Mark Zuckerberg for a cool fifty-three milli.

It’s rare to hear this many massive rappers on a single song. Big Sean’s verse is brilliant, reminding us why he’s got one of the smoothest tones, one of the most effortless flows in that circle. 2 Chainz, in all his hard-hitting and slightly nasal one-liner glory, gains momentum as the verse progresses, ahead of Yo Gotti’s simple but sexy bars. Finally comes a triumphant mid-length return for the newly free Gucci Mane.

As Kanye said when he announced the track’s premiere, this is to be the first song on Cruel Winter.

Cruel Winter, of course, is the long-rumoured follow-up to Cruel Summer, of course. Released in September 2012, this was a compilation album from G.O.O.D Music that featured input from Jay Z, Ghostface Killah, Common, Kid Cudi, Marsha Amrosius, Travis Scott, John Legend, Pusha T, Raekwon and many more – including production from Hit-Boy, Hudson Mohawke and Mike Will Made-It.

Cruel Winter has long been rumoured and hinted. I have no doubt that the hook to Champion was indeed written three years ago. Here’s a little timeline.

September 2012: Q-Tip, at that point a recent signee to G.O.O.D, was asked about his absence from the album. He responded to MTV News, “If there’s a Cruel Summer, then there’s got to be a Cruel Winter, right?”

November 2012: This happened, described well by The Guardian as, “a cross between a David Attenborough documentary and a Godspeed You! Black Emperor video”:

January 2013: Common tells New York magazine, “It was more of a rumours… everybody’s been doing their solo album.” Pusha T echoes the sentiment, telling MTV News, I believe that there were intentions for a ‘Cruel Winter’ and there’s so much music floating, but GOOD Music isn’t one to just piece a project together.” Hit-Boy reportedly said the same in a since-deleted interview recording.

February 2013: Travis Scott told Complex, I don’t wanna talk too much, but Cruel Winter is happening for real. Fuck what n*ggas is talking about, that shit is for real. That shit is happening for sure.” Big Sean echoed the sentiment, as did HudMo the following month.

July 2013: After a few more hints from Scott, Q-Tip and the like, Pusha T again throws away the claim. Speaking to radio station Power 98 he says, “We’re not doing the Cruel Winter album or the Cruel Summer sequel. There are too many projects we got going on… you got the Yeezus album, you got the Hall of Fame coming from Sean, you got my project, you got the 2 Chainz project. Like once we get all of that situated, then I’m sure… I mean, you even have Common coming. Right now, we’re not working on compilations.”

November 2013: The man himself reveals its tentative status in a post-Yeezus interview with Power 99 Radio: “I go back and forth on it, but we keep on missing the winter. That’s the only problem.”

2014: There’s basically no talk about the album whatsoever. In the wake of the stunning Yeezus, the only related information comes out when an early demo of New Slaves is uncovered under the name Cold Cruel Winter, courtesy of Benjamin Bronfman of collective Teachers. And even that’s far-fetched (but still a very cool origin story, so enjoy).

January 2015: Big Sean is asked about the album in a new interview with The Early Registration, to which he only responds, “I can say as a unit G.O.O.D. Music is doing well. I don’t want to spill any plans.”

The remainder of 2015’s Kanye rumours began to form around what would obviously eventuate as this year’s The Life Of Pablo. 

October 2015: Suddenly, a rumour begins to circulate. AllHipHop go so far as to post a rumoured track list. Retrospectively, none of these tracks seem to have been an early version of Champion, except possibly something called All Around The World ft. Scott and Sean. Other tracks including Tourist and Lil N*gga do exist in one form or another though, as well as Only One, obviously.

December 2015: Pusha-T tells Rolling Stone that Cruel Winter is “definitely on my mood board. I’m totally on that and I’m going to make that happen. That is a goal of mine and I reach my goals.”

February 2016: An Montreality interview with CyHi the Prince reveals, “Yeah, there was a lot of work done for [Cruel Winter], it was just.. ain’t no tellin’. When Def Jam’s in the picture, ain’t no tellin’ what the hell’s going on. It ain’t G.O.O.D Music. It’s really, like, the proper people know how to facilitate it all.”

Of course the rest of 2016 has been The Life Of Pablo-focused. Until…

June 1 2016: footage emerges on social media of Big Sean and Kanye in the studio. Among the various hashtags and captions came one that was very special:

Happening now! #YeButton

A photo posted by fonzbentley (@fonzbentley) on

Plus a couple snippets that we now know to be lyrics from the new track:

I have no doubt that we’ll be hearing a lot more from those involved in the coming days and weeks. Push, G.O.O.D president. clearly knows what’s up, posting this less than an hour before it came out:

Anyway, this has been a fun way to spend my morning. Fingers crossed we’ll hear more soon (ideally with more Yasiin Bey), and hopefully we can look forward to the full release come Winter 2016-17.

Image: BrandNewHipHop