It has only 12 songs and runs 40 minutes long — and, except for some very loose motifs about old-school nostalgia (the composition notebook cover, the hip-hop history lesson “In Tha Park,” the classic soul samples throughout), it lacks anything resembling a unifying theme. It also lacks bubbly pop-rap beats, celebrity hooks or heart-on-sleeve romanticism — in other words, all the things that made fans attack “Ghostdini” as an out-of-character stylistic choice. It’s as if, in response to that album’s harsh reception, Ghostface just wanted to put out a straight-up rap record, unencumbered by any higher ambitions.
The problem is that this is one rapper who doesn’t really shine when thinking small. Elaborate, focused projects motivate Ghostface to get in top-form character — he needs a vast palette to flaunt his breathless flow and acutely detailed storytelling. He’s too commandeering to comfortably settle for a back-to-basics approach, making “Apollo Kids” a restrained LP that feels more tossed-off than intended.
Of course, no matter how underwhelming the whole thing is, Ghostface is just too damn good to not bring some serious fire, and there a few tracks on “Apollo Kids” that feel almost effortlessly great. “Superstar,” featuring Busta Rhymes in signature rapid-fire mode, is a funny snapshot of high-life boasting (“Stalked by TMZ, wanted by Oprah/Followed everywhere from the Garden to the Copa”), with each bragging verse encouraged by chants of, “He’s a super, super, super, superstar.” The soul-splashed single “2getha Baby” and the triumphant “Starkology” are the only songs Ghostface has all to himself, and he fills them with the vivid, free association details he’s excellent at rattling off.
As far as memorable moments on “Apollo Kids,” that’s about it, folks. And while there isn’t a single bad cut — we don’t have to listen to him faking sex again, praise the heavens — this short effort quickly begins to feel painfully average. It’s odd that, for all the motifs about adolescent nostalgia and old-school hip-hop, “Apollo Kids” never actually tries for a raw, old-school feel.
The faux-exotic beats on “Handcuffin’ Them Hoes” and “How You Like Me Baby” sound just like “Ghostdini” leftovers, while “Street Bullies” blatantly bites Kanye West’s “chipmunk soul” production style. “In Tha Park” is actually about the ‘80s hip-hop scene (which reference are people less likely to understand: Jazzy Jeff or Memorex tapes?), but for some reason the song has a horribly awkward fuzz-bass beat, which hardly sounds anything like old-school, or decent, rap.
Since so much of the music isn’t notable, the guest list is the only other aspect of “Apollo Kids” that really is. There are 18 guest rappers among the 12 tracks, including Black Thought, The Game and nearly every member of Wu-Tang Clan (sadly, RZA doesn’t provide any beats. What a missed opportunity).
It’s unlike Ghostface to let others pull so much weight on one of his own albums, but, hey, I’m not complaining — the varied talents throughout “Apollo Kids” give it much needed vitality.
So while tracks like “Ghetto” and “Troublemakers” are hardly Wu-Tang classics — they’re more like the forgettable padding from the double-disc “Wu-Tang Forever” — it’s still good to hear some team spirit. Maybe one of Ghostface’s only objectives for this album was to get some friends together and lay down some quick tracks like it’s no big deal, and I’m glad he got to do it. But get back to work now, dude.
Silverstein is a member of the class of 2013.