Release Date: Dec 21, 2010
Record label: Def Jam
Genre(s): Rap, Pop/Rock, East Coast Rap, Hardcore Rap
Ghostface Killah is so charismatic, he can brag about being an old coot and make it sound badass. "New rappers need to skip town/This is East Coast music, Grandpa Ghost is around!" Ghost, now 40, raps. His ninth album is a return to gritty form after an uneven 2009 R&B experiment, Ghostdini: On track after track, he blows dust off some dirty-soul loop, with boasts as inspired as ever ("Catch me in a little hut in Benin, village-style, feeding the children") and street-crime storytelling as vivid as ever ("It was the night before he got popped/Big jars of haze, Cheech and Chong bong in the spot/Tropicana, strawberries, diced bananas .
Last fall?s uneven, R&B-dabbling Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City was a rare misstep in what is otherwise one of rap?s most consistently brilliant catalogs. The Wu-Tang Clan warrior goes back to basics on his ninth solo effort, Apollo Kids, reeling off jittery pulp fiction and zany free-associative zingers over scratchy soul, funk, and rock samples. Many of these tunes sound like they could have been recorded at any point in his 17-year career — and that?s great news for fans.
Ghostface Killah‘s ninth solo album was released days shy of Christmas, amidst all the holiday shenanigans and after all the best of 2010 lists had already been printed and read and as such has gone wildly unnoticed. And it’s a damn shame, because this is by far his most solid record in years. Before we begin, however, can we all just take a second to recognize how unbelievably relevant Wu-Tang and its long list of members have managed to stay over the years? Since 36 Chambers dropped back in ’93, as a collective, they have remained a mega-force in hip-hop to this very day.
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.
Albeit the respectable effort of his last solo album Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City, Apollo Kids is the return to normalcy that Ghostface Killah fans will be relieved to receive. Built on brute lyricism, much like this year’s Wu-Massacre, Ghost revels in his ability to be over the top and distinguishable. It’s to be noted that this venerable effort from Tony Starks is strapped on time.
Dr. Dre has a line on Syllables, an Eminem song that recently leaked, about how veteran rappers are the best part of hip-hop these days. While it's a standard "I started this gangsta shit" Dre-ism, it's an accurate observation when you consider Em and Jay-Z's dominance, the sustained excitement for Detox, and Raekwon's comeback. Ghostface Killah's latest adds to rap's hungry-veteran canon, reflecting the Wu-Tang Clan's recommitment to 36 Chambers-style production: a cavalcade of soulful chants, powerful funk breaks, red-lining horns, mean guitar lines.
All the artists I find the most compelling have two sides, impulses that might seem contradictory but end up coming together to produce something compelling. Think of Sex Pistols’ simultaneous punk rage and unapologetic money-grubbing, or N.W.A.’s desire to be both political and obscene. Ghostface Killah’s difference engine is that he wants to be king of the streets and king of the sheets: he makes tracks about violent drug-deals-gone-wrong, but also seduction raps talking fast to ladies.
Just what the hardcore ordered, Ghostface Killah’s 2010 effort is a return to the grimey soul and stream-of-consciousness street flow of the man’s best work, but without those final touches that made Supreme Clientele or Fishscale masterpieces. Odd artwork and a title that’s stolen from a Supreme Clientele track are the first clues that something is a little off here, and when a Pete Rock production previously used on the 2007 mixtape cut “Chunky” appears here under the title “How You Like Me Baby,” one begins to wonder if Apollo Kids is really a clearing house for homeless cuts, making way for Ghostface’s promised Supreme Clientele 2. Still, that Pete Rock cut is one wicked monster fans should revisit, as the rapper attracts the ladies with examples of his talent and sense of responsibility (“Cats like the way I write/Dressed like a superstar/Take care of family/So I don’t have stupid cars”) along with his craftiness (“Back in my reefer days/Sellin’ you parsley”).
If the Wu-Tang machine has started to run out of steam over the past few years, suffering from a major drought of truly captivating long-players since the turn of the millennium, then their back-to-basics approach to production and in-house guest spots has been a conscious effort to arrest their worrying downward spiral. Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. II was an album deeply entrenched in the old school Wu-Tang philosophy and style, and has duly been singled out as the torchbearer of the Wu renaissance.
Anyone surprised by the all-R&B, mostly-WTF? direction of Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City should be studying Ghostface's art: ever since signing to Def Jam and temporarily dropping the "Killah," it's been like watching the aftermath of Weezer's Pinkerton flop over and over again. Though we got some undeniably great music in the process, it felt somewhat ancillary to "Tush", "Back Like That", the "Back Like That" remix, bummed out interviews, and hiring Diddy's production team for Big Doe Rehab-- all pretty clear actions of someone who takes his poor commercial fortunes very personally and isn't trying to be anyone's idea of a cult act. Of course, none of it worked in the slightest, so even if it was a giant fuck-you to his hardcore contingent, Ghostdini was at least understandable as the culmination of years worth of frustration from someone who felt like he ran out of crossover options.
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.