Alas, it appears that even the mighty Tony Starks is no match for the modern music industry. After an enigmatic debut as the masked member of Wu-Tang Clan, Ghostface Killah spent the better part of fifteen years as hip-hop’s Iron Man overcoming the jiggy era, the Southern invasion and myriad label dramas to drop, perhaps, hip-hop’s longest streak of stellar solo albums. But, Apollo Kids, Ghost’s ninth solo release unfolds more like a prototypical exercise in 2010 record industry economics than of the artist’s trademark grimily abstract craftsmanship.
Ghostface is formidable as ever on the mic. If his cinematic vignettes on fellow Clansman Raekwon’s Only Built For Cuban Linx 2 didn’t convince you, then his vintage verse on Apollo Kids’ explosive opener “Purified Thoughts” surely will. As he waxes passionately poetic on financial and spiritual liberation over the thunderous beat, long time fans will have every reason to expect another Ghostdini epic. Yet, the album quickly loses steam as the insipid hook on “Superstar” plays like an all too forced attempt to recreate the quirky club magic of the classic “Cherchez LaGhost.” The funk tinged production on “Tequila” feels alarmingly cold and mechanical in comparison’s to Ghost’s trademark soul drenched backdrops.
Towards the middle, we get a glorious glimpse of what the album could have been with a trifecta of minimalist boom-bap tracks that pay rousing homage to hip-hop’s golden era. The highlight of the sequence, even the highlight of the album is “Tha Park,” a rollicking reminiscence of the ‘80s over a cavalcade of pounding drums, rumbling bass and distorted guitar. It would take a masterful MC to top Ghost’s vivid imagery, and that MC arrives in the form of Black Thought, who anchors the track with one of his most forceful performances to date. But, the momentum quickly dissipates as the Jim Jones featured “Handcuffin’ Them Hoes” quickly degenerates into misogynistic clichés and an under whelming hook.
Many of Apollo Kids’ flaws are likely a result of outside factors. The awkward adherence to commercially viable formulas wreaks of a record label looking for a song they can “push,” and the absence of Ghost’s usual collaborators behind the boards (not even a single RZA track, let alone Madlib) probably speak to budget constraints. It’s a testament to Ghostface’s MC bonafides and sheer force of personality that, while easily his weakest solo outing, Apollo Kids is far from a bad album. It just doesn’t quite feel like a Ghostface Killah album.