After releasing an R&B album to a righteously mixed reception in 2009, Ghostface returns to the bare essentials of hip-hop for Apollo Kids in a bid to win back the audience he dared to lose.
Despite emerging from an era of hip-hop in which raps directed at females was generally frowned upon, Dennis Coles has rarely shied away from the subject. "Big Girl", "Tush", "Love Session", and of course "Wildflower" had all established Ghostface Killah as a man who wasn't afraid to put the sherm blunt down and talk dirty to the ladies for a moment. For me, this meant that the Ghostdini album last year was not really out of character for the guy, as much as an opportunity to more fully flex a muscle he'd already been working on for years. Yet to most listeners, the album that carried sappy love songs like "Lonely", "Baby", "Stay" and "Goner" along with more typical raunch like "Stapleton Sex" and "Guest House" was a major letdown. Of all the Wu-Tang originals, it's always been Ghostface who could be counted on to deliver something at least resembling the worthy old Wu branding. To those diehards, Ghostdini seemed to have been a bit of a sellout point, a moment to stop and wonder whether the tide changes of mainstream hip-hop had finally trickled down into Ghost's camp and rendered him slightly emasculated. Nevermind that the style of that album's raps were undeniably accomplishable only by Ghostface, the conceptual blasphemy left a bitter taste in one too many mouth.
For an artist who once famously ranted via webcam that Fishscale deserved to do far better numbers than it did, perhaps the fans knew that they would get what they wanted if only they asked loudly enough. Apollo Kids arrived in late December 2010, and it's hard to imagine Wu fans received it as anything other than a fantastic Christmas gift. Where the year's earlier collaborative effort with Raekwon and Method Man ended up as a mediocre rushjob, Apollo Kids satisfies all the primal urges that fuel the Wu republic, with groovy soul and funk samples throughout. Gritty raps about street robberies, disrespecting bitches and straight-up cipher rapping; no features that feel more than a shade or two removed from the prototypical Wu-Tang color palette. At just a hair over 40 minutes, it feels like a work of boundless energy, something dying to be spun immediately after its runtime expires.
This isn't to say that Apollo Kids is an amazing effort. "Handcuffin' Them Hoes" (featuring a mindless Jim Jones) and posse cuts "Black Tequila", "Street Bullies" and "Ghetto" bring to mind the harmless filler that littered Bulletproof Wallets or More Fish, more style than substance. Opener "Purified Thoughts" and closer "Troublemakers" do enough to sound great while they're on, but lack that certain intangible that comes with boundless creativity. Apollo Kids is, essentially, the safest and most accessible album yet from Ghostface Killah, often hinting at the associative insanity he's capable of without ever fully taking us there. But even winks and nods towards spectacles like Supreme Clientele and Fischscale are ear candy for hip-hop heads, and Apollo Kids succeeds again and again at fulfilling at least that much. Raekwon's flow, as it so often has been the past two years, remains deliciously in the pocket on his two appearances. GZA and Joell Ortiz deliver their expected doses of high quality storytelling. The Game surprises with a dead-on Raekwon impression, Busta Rhymes hearkens back to his Genesis days and Black Thought shows us a rougher, grittier side that's all too often been missing from his band's more political bent the past few years.
Apollo Kids definitely feels like a bit of an apology to his fans, and might be more accurately considered a stopgap, street album before Ghost's next labor of love. He's been quick to point out that he has both Blue & Cream and a Supreme Clientele sequel in the works for 2011, though details remain scarce on both. While it's definitely exciting for us to hear Apollo Kids and understand that Ghost is still largely in control of his artistic muses, one also gets the feeling that he's waiting to put on the real show. Still, as appetizers go, Apollo Kids is a hell of a dish.