On April 18, 2014, during a show at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, Del Rey revealed the name of the song, calling it her favorite from the album. In an interview with radio station 96.5TIC, Del Rey revealed how she wrote the song with her guitarist Blake Stranathan.
A demo of the song is rumored to exist. An early mix of the song leaked on November 10, 2020.
Composition and writing
"Cruel World" is a rock song in 4/4 performed at approximately 117 beats per minute in the key of F major. It runs at 6 minutes and 39 seconds long. Lyrically, the song describes a violent and drug-fueled relationship that has ended. On writing the song, Del Rey explained:
“I went down to the beach and I was thinking about everything, personally. The verse is thoughtful and laid back, but then the chorus falls into this world of chaotic and heavy sub-bass. The juxtaposition of those two worlds, the peaceful beginning and the chaotic chorus, it summed up my personal circumstances of everything going easily and then everything being fucked up. It felt like me.”
In another interview with Les Inrockuptibles‘ June issue, she also expanded this idea of duality between the verses and the chorus when talking about the song:
"Cruel World determined everything. Geographically, it puts the album: Dan’s guitar meets immediately California. There is in the beginning of the text a certain “épure”, a simplicity. And then arrives the chorus with its big drums and electric disorder… This cohabitation between normality and chaos is very symbolic of what I had gone through my life" 
"On the last day while Phil Joly, the engineer, was bouncing down a couple sessions, and she asked me if I wanted to play around with the new pedal in the live room. I played maybe a few chords and we immediately started writing 'Cruel World'. We recorded it just guitar and vocal in one take, and the Dan Auerbach went on to produce the song not long after."
Various critics identified the song as a breakup song, Kenneth Patridge of Billboard compared the song to Mazzy Star and called it a "woozy, bluesy slow-burner about a self-professed crazy girl who's just removed herself from a destructive relationship". Mark Richardson of Pitchfork praised the song's production, with "its twangy guitars and thudding drums exploding at just the right moments". In an album review of Ultraviolence, Caryn Ganz of Rolling Stone stated: "'Cruel World', where a reverb-drenched riff lurks behind seductively kvetched lyrics about love and madness."
Since late 2014, "Cruel World" is often the first song Del Rey sings at her concerts. She performed it live for the first time on October 6, 2014, in Mexico City, Mexico, as the opening song for that concert, and was performed as the opening song for the last six dates on the Paradise Tour (October 6 to 18, 2014), in favor of "Cola", which had been performed as the opening song for all of the previous dates on the tour. Since then "Cruel World" was performed as the opening song for each of Del Rey's shows including the 2015 Endless Summer Tour and her 2016 Festival Tour. The song was performed as her opener until late 2017 when she began opening her shows with "13 Beaches" instead.
- Del Rey sings about a violent religious man in "Butterflies, Pt. 2".
- A red dress is mentioned in "Summertime Sadness", "Off to the Races", "Carmen", "Yes to Heaven" and "Criminals Run the World".
- A party dress is also mentioned in "Hundred Dollar Bill", "Love Song" and "National Anthem".
- Being "young, wild, free and crazy" is mentioned in the "Ride" monologue.
- The song's title "Cruel World" is referenced in "Hollywood's Dead", "Wild on You", "Cherry Blossom" and is also used in the live introduction for "Cola".
- The phrase "got your gun" also appears in "Is This Happiness" and is alluded to in "The Blackest Day".
- Reference to the song "Heroin".
- The Bible is also mentioned in "I Talk to Jesus", "Not All Who Wander Are Lost" and "Tulsa Jesus Freak".
- Being crazy is also referenced in "Ride", "Off to the Races", "Happiness is a Butterfly" and the poem "My Bedroom is a Sacred Place Now - There Are Children at the Foot of my Bed".
- Album version — 6:39
- Instrumental version — 6:38
- Clean version — 6:39
- Early mix – 6:47
- Lana Del Rey — vocals, songwriting
- Blake Stranathan — songwriting, electric guitar, claps
- Dan Auerbach — production
- Collin Dupuis — engineering
- Robert Orton — mixing
- Nick Movshon — electric bass, claps
- Leon Michaels — synthesizers, mellotron, claps
- Kenny Vaughan — electric guitar
- Seth Kaufman — synthesizer, claps
- Russ Pahl — pedal steel
- Maximilian Weissenfeldt — drums, claps
- John Davis — mastering
- Published by Copyright Control/Sony/ATV Music Publishing
- Recorded at Easy Eye Sound, Nashville, United States
- Mastered at Metropolis Studios, London, United Kingdom
- Mixed at Hot Rocks Studios, Santa Monica, United States
- Zadeh, Joey (June 12, 2014) "American Dreamer: Lana Del Rey Interviewed". Clash Music.
- Heine, Angela (August 25, 2014) "Pedalboard Feature: Blake Stranathan
- Partridge, Kenneth (June 16, 2014). "Lana Del Rey, 'Ultraviolence': Track-by-Track Album Review". Billboard.
- Richardson, Mark (June 16, 2014). "Lana Del Rey: Ultraviolence Album Review". Pitchfork.
- Ganz, Caryn (June 20, 2014). "Lana Del Rey 'Ultraviolence' Album Review". Rolling Stone.