As Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch proved, not all hip-hop collaborations are created equal. On their debut album, The Spirit of Apollo, N.A.S.A. (the North America/South America DJ duo of Squeak E. Clean and DJ Zegon) have so many collaborators (more than 40) they don’t have time to consider whether or not teaming up George Clinton and Chali 2na is really on the same level as having Kool Keith and Tom Waits on a track. They’ve got other, and too many, collaborators coming soon.
“The People Tree” and “Money” are The Spirit of Apollo’s two-headed highlight. Both tracks feature Talking Head David Byrne on hook duty, a lark so audacious and pulled off so well that Byrne could probably have a second career as a hookman for this generation of rappers. “Money” is the better of the two tracks. It features an intro and chorus help by Seu Jorge (of City of God and Life Is Aquatic fame), a muscular verse from Public Enemy’s Chuck D, and over-achieving lines from Ras Congo and Z-Trip.
Spirit of Apollo’s main problem isn’t the talent of the guest performers — they’re mostly pretty great. It’s the fact that Squeak E. Clean and Zegon have created a drab collection of beats that sound like they were made five minutes after they corralled the guests into the studio to do a track. The beats are almost universally mixed to the highest audio level and mostly characterless.
The smattering of guest appearances certainly doesn’t help, either. You hardly notice when the tracks change from a too-loud banger featuring Lykke Li, Santigold and Kanye West (“Gifted”) to a too-loud banger featuring Lovefoxxx, Sizzla and Amanda Blank. In effect, Spirit of Apollo often plays like a less ephemeral Girl Talk album with substandard beats and fewer vocals.
There are some tracks that succeed despite too similar beats. The Kool Keith and Tom Waits track (“Spacious Thoughts”) is about as schizophrenic as you’d imagine; M.I.A., Spank Rock, Santigold and Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Whachadoin’” actually sounds like it could have been made by the artists involved; and Method Man, E-40 and DJ Swamp drop entertaining alternating verses on “N.A.S.A. Music." But at 17 tracks and nearly 80 minutes, the rest of the album is undone by the novelty involved. Sure, at first it’s cool to hear Ghostface, Scarface and the Cool Kids trading verses on a song (“The Mayor”), but that’s quickly replaced with the desire to hear just one of them dominate the track, instead of all of them skirting around each other doing their best not to completely stick out.
If nothing else, The Spirit of Apollo is better as a house party record than a “let’s listen to this 10 times in a row” kind of record. It’s better suited for a crappy boombox in a packed house where the randomness of the performers and the harshness of the beats can find a vibe that suits them. Otherwise, The Spirit of Apollo is what happens when you pack 40 guest appearances onto a single album and expect their charisma alone to make something intriguing. It’s a huge gamble, and one The Spirit of Apollo lost.