For a very brief period between Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and his solo debut, 1995’s Ironman, Ghostface Killah was a pop star. His Ironman even hit number two, the highest chart position for a Wu-Tang album until 1997’s Wu-Tang Forever gatecrashed at number one. Ghostface has never recovered, spending an increasing amount of his time complaining about his album sales (he lashed out at his MySpace friends after 2008’s excellent Big Doe Rehab didn’t move a lot of numbers), desperately trying for a crossover hit to even fewer units (2009’s R&B experiment, Wizard of Poetry), and generally carrying on like an unappreciated, put-upon genius.
But what makes Ghostface so special, and so vital, long after his Wu-Tang brothers have faded into irrelevance (Raekwon excluded), is the fact that his music is so staunchly anti-commercial. This is a guy who can’t be trusted to rap a straight song in his life. Instead, he’s about lyrical abstraction, a veritable hip-hop William Burroughs cutting up strips of his own life and placing them in the context of hip-hop verses. Even though it’s a stone-cold classic (and maybe the best hip-hop album of all time), try explaining Supreme Clientele to someone. What is it about? It’s not easy to describe. Ghostface’s best works are down-the-rabbit-hole trips through a world of dealers, sex, violence, groupies, and corners, not full of easily reciteable bars that can be recreated by the kids from Glee.
Which leads us to this: The recently released Apollo Kids (a title that serves as a callback to Supreme Clientele’s most recognizable single) isn’t going to be the pop re-deliverance that Ghostface has been hoping for on his Twitter. Instead, it’s a winding, oft-thrilling album that splits the difference between the dusty soul samples of Pretty Toney and the stream of consciousness of Fishscale. It’s also his best album since the latter.
Ghost has staked the commercial prospects of Apollo Kids on lead single “2Getha Baby,” which is entirely indicative of how far afield this guy is; it’s a great song, to be sure, but imagining this being slotted between Drake and Trey Songz on Hot 97 is a laugh. It’s built on hard-charging, come-on heavy verses that feature Ghost telling a woman he’ll “spank that ass like Papi Chulo” and saying “this is that Jimmy Neutron, baby,” over a soul sample that seems incomplete. Ghost often seems like he’s out of time, reaching the cue for the chorus mid-sentence, cutting off in time for the dusty blares of the sample to hit. It’s vintage Ghost, on an album full of cuts like it.
The soul production on Apollo Kids is probably what most people had in mind when Def Jam announced that Ghostface would be doing an “R&B album” for Wizard of Poetry, with dusty drums, hearty backbeats and crackling vocals samples being as important as Ghost’s lyrics. This approach yields great results on late album cut, “Ghetto,” a bouncing, vintage East Coast rambler built on an obscure Marlena Shaw sample. The legendary Pete Rock provides soul man screams and vintage breakbeats on “How You Like Me Baby,” a classic, only-in-New York beat that could have been from 1980 just as easily as 2010.
Like a lot of recent Wu-Tang albums, Apollo Kids is often dependant on the strength of its guest appearances. The guest verses run the gamut from fun (Raekwon, Method Man and Redman on the delirious “Troublemakers”), awful (Jim Jones’ typically lazy verse on “Handcuffin’ Them Hoes”), sleepy (Joell Ortiz and The Game on “Drama”), head-scratching (Sheek Louch, Wiggs & Sungod one “Street Bullies”), to vintage (GZA and Killah Priest on “Purified Thoughts” and Raekwon, Cappadonna & U-God on “Ghetto”). But there’s one truly transcendent guest verse on Apollo Kids: Black Thought’s wild, verbose, hip-hop history verse that name-checks everyone from Schooly D to Jazzy Jeff, and has Thought shouting “If you don’t like how I’m living, then fuck you.” If this isn’t enough for an A&R guy at Def Jam to pressure Thought for a solo album, then nothing is.
If hip-hop fame and radio plays were built on quality, like Ghostface has always assumed, then Apollo Kids would be blowing up something fierce right now (and “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” would get played on Vh1 Classic instead of “I’ll Be Missing You”). But Ghostface can rest easy in the fact that Apollo Kids shows that the drop in quality on Wizard of Poetry was just temporary, and amongst rappers who are 40-years-old or older, he’s the definite champ. There aren’t even many graying rockers making art as vital as Apollo Kids, radio play or not.