Ghostface Killah - Apollo Kids

Posted January 12, 2011

Phrases like “best rappers alive” and “most underrated” are so overused in hip-hop,...

Apollo Kids Album Review

Phrases like “best rappers alive” and “most underrated” are so overused in hip-hop, subject to such neverending and vague debate, that they’ve essentially lost their meanings. But if we’re talking about Ghostface Killah, I have to use those terms. Ask a hip-hop fan, even a hardcore head, to name the top ten rappers alive and Ghost’s name will rarely come up, but it’s hard to figure out why. The most accomplished member of the indisputably greatest group in history, Ghost is not only an extraordinary storyteller, but a rapper who has developed an impossible to copy style that blends street themes with abstract poetry and his own invented lexicon. Or, to put it less intelligently, Ghost’s ad-libs are better than your favorite rappers catalog. Yeah, I’ll say it. Dennis Coles is the most underrated rapper alive.

While they might not go that far, my hip-hop journalism brethren seem to know they haven’t done Tony Starks justice, which is perhaps why, ironically, his new album Apollo Kids has been so critically overrated. Much like no Denzel Washington movie gets a negative rating (because, you know, who wants to f**k with Denzel?), simply by having his name appear on the cover any new Ghost album is accorded a measure of respect, and deservedly so. But instead of engaging in empty and hyperbolic “maybe his best album ever” praise, I love Ironman’s music too much not to be a steely eyed realist. Those of us who have followed his career like the Disciples followed Jesus, whose fantasy football teams are named The Shakey Dogs, know Apollo Kids falls below his best work.

Above all else, Apollo Kids is a return to Ghost’s roots as a kid on Staten Island at a time when hip-hop was just beginning (hence the school notebook cover, and the reference to his classic album, Supreme Clientele). Perhaps meant to counteract the r&b flavor of his previous album Ghostdini, Apollo Kids is raw; raw like In Tha Park. While a rock based, distorted beat spins Starks and another rap foundationalist, Black Thought, take it back to a time you had to put nickels on the needle to stop the turntables from skipping. Similarly, Purified Thoughts, which features the album’s best beat (also by Dukes), is rap completely stripped of its artifice, relying instead on a mixture of soul and hard-laced rhymes. Time and time again, from the simultaneously violent, hilarious and heartfelt Street Bullies to the live drum driven Troublemakers, Apollo Kids doesn’t stray from its less is more philosophy.

Make no mistake, those records are still better than 99% of the new music that gets pumped out (and yes, I’m aware that I’m in old grumpy man mode), but they just don’t grab a hold of your central nervous system like Ghost’s elite work. At his best Starks doesn’t create albums, he creates worlds to live inside. Whether he’s rhyming about “mermaids with Halle Berry haircuts” or describing the kind of sex I can’t type here - “You can put my **** in your ***** and play with my ****- no one pulls you into his world like Ghost. Apollo Kids, by contrast, lacks the depth to fall into. Drama may come the closest, but by allowing each of the three rappers on the track to tell their own story, we have to reset with every verse, no matter how good those individual verses may be (word to Joell Ortiz). That guest feature overkill can’t be found on solo efforts Starkology and 2getha Baby, but even here we don’t get some of the lyrical attention to detail we’ve come to expect from the man. For someone who in large part has built their reputation on storytelling, Apollo Kids is, relatively speaking, narratively stark. (Pun intended.)

Does any of this change my “most underrated rapper alive” assessment? Absolutely not. Ghostface doesn’t budge an inch from my top ten list. But even Jordan couldn’t pull off a 60 point game every time. If anything, it’s on their “off days” that the legends truly emerge as the greatest. When you’re average work is better than most could ever hope for, you’re part of an elite group, and I’ll go to my grave arguing that Ghostface Killah belongs in that group. Just don’t expect me to use many track from Apollo Kids to in those debates.

DJBooth Rating - 3.5 Spins

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Posted January 12, 2011
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