Def Jam Records fulfilled its annual tradition of releasing tax write-offs in the month of December by appeasing the fans of aging veterans Redman and Sheek Louch, but the one project that I was most interested in was Ghostface Killah's ninth solo album, Apollo Kids (named after one of his more interesting singles from his magnum opus, Supreme Clientele). As I was certain that his ridiculously-titled previous disc, the R&B-tinged Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry In Emerald City, was the final one required by his original contract, I was shocked to discover that not only was Dennis Coles still on the payroll of The House That Russell Built, but he was apparently there by choice, as he has lined up at least three more projects for the future.
Although the album cover art looks pretty awful (I'm not expecting Kanye levels of creativity here, but I do look for appealing design, which the Apollo Kids cover contains none of: hell, whoever created the piece failed to double-check Ghost's "logo", which should read GFK and not just GK), the most important component of the cover is in the lower right hand corner. Yes, I'm talking about the Wu-Tang logo. Apollo Kids features the most Wu-Tang Clan involvement of any Ghostface Killah album since the disappointing The Big Doe Rehab (the shitty compilation GhostDeini The Great doesn't count), although that doesn't mean that any of the Wu Elements appear behind the boards: as is his standard, Pretty Toney has elected to save his money and hire lesser-known talent to score his finely-crafted tales, instead of getting a ringer such as The RZA or True Master involved for what isn't really a guaranteed banger anymore. In fact, everyone from the Clan makes an appearance, save for the aforementioned Prince Rakeem, Inspectah Deck, and Masta Killa, all of whom must have had a doctor's appointment or a haircut scheduled that day.
Maybe all of Ghost's work on the Wu-Massacre debacle earlier this year made him appreciate the input his fellow group members can offer. Regardless, it remains to be seen whether Apollo Kids is just another nail in the Wu coffin, or if it could possibly be the aural equivalent of an adrenaline shot through Uma Thurman's heart. Also, the title Apollo Kids would seem to be a better fit for an album by a group of Ghostface Killahs, and not just a single guy, but whatever.
1. PURIFIED THOUGHTS (FEAT. GZA/GENIUS & KILLAH PRIEST)
When the music first appeared, I thought that Apollo Kids was going to kick off as though it was a continuation of a previous project, but then I realized that Frank Dukes uses the Them Two “Am I A Good Man” sample to fuel his instrumental, which fucking bangs. The combination of Ghost, Killah Priest, and the GZA hasn't been utilized since GZA's “4th Chamber” on Liquid Swords (back in 1995 – fuck, I feel old), so, as expected, they all sound a bit long in the tooth, but this shit still knocked regardless, even though GZA's verse hardly registers in your subconscious and Ghost sounds like Cappadonna in both vocal tone and flow. Maybe he had caught a cold or something? It's weird for me to say that Killah Priest had the best verse on any Wu-Tang posse cut, but here we are. (Although he did rock shit on Ol Dirty Bastard's “Snakes”, so there is a set precedent, I guess.)
2. SUPERSTAR (FEAT. BUSTA RHYMES)
Shroom's beat on here is actually pretty hot, coming across as a blaxploitation upgrade of “Cherchez LaGhost”, and Pretty Toney glides over it like a car with its brake line severed. Busta even sounds reigned in: although he says nothing of note, he still turns in a good performance. My only complaint about “Superstar” isn't even really much of a complaint: the female vocals land on the corny side of the fence. But then again, they usually do: if you look at the man's back catalog, there are at least three other songs that follow a similar blueprint and achieve similar results. I liked it, but I can't bring myself to like like it.
3. BLACK TEQUILA (FEAT. CAPPADONNA & TRIFE)
Beat-wise, Ghostface is three for three: Frank Dukes returns to supply a hard instrumental custom-built for the Theodore Unit to get sloppy blackout drunk to. Cappadonna's middle verse seems to be filled with more gibberish than usual: clearly, his late nights driving a gypsy cab through New York City has muddled his thought process and affected his self-edit function. Anyway, Ghost and his boy Trife Diesel sound great, with Trife taking the crown even with an egregious mispronunciation of the Greek word “gyro”, done solely to connect a rhyme. Oh well, this was still pretty nice.
4. DRAMA (FEAT. JOELL ORTIZ & THE GAME)
Fuck, I spoke too soon: Sean C and LV's beat on “Drama” is only alright. Our host spits the first verse and graciously walks away, allowing for his guests to handle most of the heavy labor, and by “heavy labor”, I mean that Slaughterhouse's Joell Ortiz sounds fucking fantastic (I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the beat originally his to use, as he appears to be very familiar with the ins and outs of it) and The Game manages to get in a few interesting bars while sounding boring as fuck. He only drops a small number of names, so that earns him a few points: however, one of those names is that of Rachael Ray, which takes him back down to negative seventy-three. Remember when Game's fourth album was supposed to drop this year? Yeah, neither does anybody else.
5. 2GETHA BABY
Aside from the fact that the final moments of the track sound creepy, as though Ghost has slipped something into the woman's drink, “2getha Baby”, the first single from Apollo Kids, was a nice return to form after the mostly forgettable “Drama”, with Tony Starks following the blueprint from The Pretty Toney Album to a tee. Sure, this song is mostly about hooking up with chicks, and both Michelle Obama and Madonna are referenced (oh Ghostface, whatever would we do without you?), but it still comes together in the end, and Ghost sounds as engaged as ever.
There isn't much to this song, which is just three separate freestyle sessions wearing their parents' clothes, but it still clicks in a way that only Ghostface Killah could manage. He claims that his “verses [are] like leaving the gas on”, and I'm inclined to agree, since his witty bars actually cause sparks to fly out of your speakers. (Yes, that last sentence doesn't make sense, and it isn't even scientifically sound, but neither are a lot of Tony's bars, and I still enjoy them.) Also, the out-of-nowhere sample from the Tears For Fears song “Shout” was fucking hilarious in its randomness, but then again, I'm an unabashed fan of 1980s music, so of course I would focus on that shit.
7. IN THA PARK (FEAT. BLACK THOUGHT)
When I first read about this collaboration, I'm pretty sure I heard excited shouting from the rooftops across America: it isn't very often that Black Thought (of Def Jam labelmates The Roots) consents to lend a guest verse to an artist outside of his immediate camp, and since he's never gotten his due as a dope emcee, the combination of Jimmy Fallon's co-worker and the most consistent rapper in the Wu-Tang Clan should have been fucking epic. The key phrase in that last sentence is “should have been”, as Frank Dukes completely fucks up absolutely everything by crafting a beat that sounds less like music and more like a fucking hazard alarm signaling a radiation leak. The instrumental comes off as though its primary inspiration was the work Megahertz put into producing Puff Daddy's “Bad Boy 4 Life”, and I mean that as a fucking insult, even though I kind of like the Puffy track. And I was looking forward to this shit, too! Oh well, at least the verses from the two artists, who both show love to the early days of hip hop (unlike what Ol' Dirty Bastard and Coolio did on the former's similarly-named “The Park”), sounded great. Can someone please remix this with a better beat? Pretty please?
8. HOW YOU LIKE ME BABY
On the original tracklist for Apollo Kids, this song was supposed to be an iTunes-exclusive bonus track, and it was supposed to feature a guest verse from labelmate Fabolous, but I guess he got lost in the wash, like so many left socks. Pete Rock turns in one of his simpler instrumentals, but it still motivates our host, as he spits two verses that rival his early work in terms of quality. I'm not happy with the fact that Apollo Kids features two separate tracks that contain the word “baby” in the title, but whatever, I didn't program the album or anything. This doesn't hit as hard as his previous collaboration with Peter, Fishscale's “Be Easy”, but don't let that stop you from enjoying it anyway.
9. HANDCUFFIN' THEM HOES (FEAT. JIM JONES)
Even if you erased the useless Jim Jones and his ridiculous ad-libs from this track, it would still sound horrible. Yes, I just inferred that Jimmy didn't ruin this shitty song: Ghost and his producer, Chino Maurice, did that just fine all by themselves. Still, once again, this is a terrible song. Just skip past it: you'll thank me later. Preferably with cash and/or gift cards.
10. STREET BULLIES (FEAT. SHAWN WIGS, SHEEK LOUCH, & SUN GOD)
After the recent announcement of a Wu-Tang Clan / D-Block collaboration album (which is really just a Ghostface Killah / Sheek Louch (from The Lox) joint project), it's impossible to hear “Street Bullies” as anything but a dry run. If this is what that disc is going to sound like, then maybe they should pool their respective budgets together and purchase some better beats. Also, Ghost should conveniently forget to invite Shawn Wigs to the studio that day, as he adds nothing to these proceedings. Ghost and Sheek sound okay, and Ghost's kid Sun God doesn't embarrass himself, but this should have been much better. Sigh.
11. GHETTO (FEAT. RAEKWON, CAPPADONNA, & U-GOD)
I suppose Ghostface Killah deserves a medal or some other adequate compensation for coercing a decent performance out of motherfucking U-God, even going so far as to sacrifice his boy Chef Raekwon to the temptation of deep slumber for the cause. Anthony Acid's beat is kind of boring, but everyone that isn't named Corey Woods manages to make up for it, thanks to an amazing amount of focus present from the remaining three artists. This could have been much better, but I had pretty low expectations when I first heard that Golden Arms was dropping by, so the fact that he doesn't suck somehow renders this track successful.
12. TROUBLEMAKERS (FEAT. RAEKWON, REDMAN, & METHOD MAN)
Ghostface saves the best track for last, revealing what is probably a Wu-Massacre leftover with a demanding Jake One beat and winning verses from everyone involved, including an Red Bull-assisted Raekwon and the “eleventh member of the Wu-Tang” Reggie Noble, who spits bars that sound better than the entirety of Reggie. If Wu-Massacre sounded more like this one song, that project wouldn't have sucked so goddamn much. A side note to our host: your songs sound infinitely better when all of the artists involved give a good goddamn. I'm just saying.
THE LAST WORD: It has its ups and downs (whoever allowed Jim Jones within five hundred feet of the studio sessions should be drawn and quartered), but Apollo Kids is ultimately the best Ghostface Killah album since Fishscale. No, I'm not fucking kidding: Pretty Toney runs alongside all of his invited guests with the mobility of his younger self, adapting to the rhythms and attempting to appeal to the younger demographic while marketing himself to the fans who have stuck by the Wu-Tang Clan since Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). The involvement of the rest of the Wu is also a huge help, and I'm left hoping that not only will he continue to use them in key roles on future projects, but that he will be able to convince The RZA, Masta Killa, and Inspectah Deck to return his fucking phone calls. For the most part, Ghost's ear for beats is as consistent as ever, and his ability to go haywire over nearly any type of musical accompaniment remains as potent as ever. Apollo Kids runs a bit too short for my tastes, but that's only because I liked it so fucking much that I didn't want it to end. Thanks, Ghostface Killah and Def Jam Records, for turning a tax write-off into an enjoyable Christmas miracle. And thank you, Amazon, for selling this for only five bucks, although I don't know if this is a promotional price or anything, so catch it while you can. It's well worth it.