Man, no one in rap whinges quite so much as the Wu Tang Clan's Ghostface Killah. Even that nasal delivery of his sounds like a complaint, or lament, and can easily be imagined delivering the letters on Points of View.
When the Wu released their interesting (but criminally top heavy) fifth studio album Eight Diagrams, it sparked an indicative spat between RZA and Ghostface, the latter refusing to delay the release of his solo album The Big Doe Rehab, and openly criticising the production and quality of Eight Diagrams. It was indicative, however, not only of Ghostface's (real name Tony Starks) singular obstinacy, but also his own high standards, which the release of his eighth proper studio solo album, Apollo Kids, provides a fine opportunity to salute.
Almost two decades after the Wu's debut, it is fair to say that, however you rate Starks as an emcee, he is undoubtedly the single most consistent artist to have emerged from hip hop's richest dynasty. Rappers are primarily wordsmiths rather than musicians, something that perhaps explains the endemic unreliability conspicuous in every hip hop oeuvre. Yet Starks seems to possess a more demanding critical faculty than most, and always emerges armed with a fresh and arresting new sound, discerning and exploiting talented new producers rather than simply sitting back and relying on his own words to carry the show.
It is also interesting to note the various metamorphoses he has subjected himself to, as a vocalist, writer and persona. First there was Ironman, part of that great first generation of Wu solo records, with Starks equal parts criminologist and metaphysician. Then, with Supreme Clientele, he leapt off the deep end, name checking abstract art in interviews, and delivering such densely surreal lyrics that he temporarily became the darling of the hip hop intelligentsia.
Whatever other misgivings he may have had about those particular laurels, they were far from the most profitable, and Starks, who always leaves you with the bona fide impression that all profits from a release go straight back into a lucrative sideline in cocaine distribution, was unlikely to settle into the habitual practise of l'art pour l'art. Between Supreme Clientele and Fishscale (his next critical and commercial homerun), he had quite shed all that Technicolor skin, and was wholly focussed on women and crime, primarily the latter. Focussed, however, was the word, Fishscale was too concentrated and vital to be as generic as its themes, though it was around this time that Starks himself began whinging in interviews about lyrical limitations. "I'm nearly forty," he harangued journalists (as if they were responsible for his lyrics), "I can't just be going on about selling drugs all the time."
He was evidently in an impasse. But the question remained: other than selling drugs, what on earth could Ghostface Killah conceivably bang on about? Well, there was women, of course, and sex, which he always banged on about half the time anyway. Long term aficionados have lost count of the number of asides where Starks documented his struggles resisting domestic violence - "I should have slapped you!", "First thought was beat the bitch up!", "I'm too much man to leave a mark on you!" etc, etc - the problems usually arising from a girlfriend cheating on him in what he regarded as an inordinate overreaction to his own infidelities.
It was this merry-go-round of philandering that he concentrated on for his penultimate studio album, the R'n'B rap of Ghostdini Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City, in which Starks took his fans by the hand and gave them an unremitting tour of his love life, sleeping with the wives of friends (what can you do?), catching them with his own missus (how dare they!), and even, on Stapleton Sex, bringing his few thousand, mostly male fans into the bedroom with him, a fly on the wall moment few would neglect skipping the second time around.
That Ghostdini Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City wasn't outright terrible (few genres have as barren a back catalogue as R'n'B) was practically a miracle, and the most impressive exhibit yet in the case for Starks' singular quality control, but it was the fact that he had effected a further metamorphoses in style and content, and with some degree of success, that really deserved admiration. In artistic terms, Wu peers Method Man and Raekwon (to name two probably superior emcees), haven't so much as changed their underpants over the last decade, let alone picked up a completely new outfit.
And it is for these reasons that Starks' latest album, Apollo Kids, deserves our attention in the way that no other album released this year by a middle aged rapper will. Observant Ghost watchers will note the vaguely cosmic title, lifted from one of the truly great cuts from Supreme Clientele, a nostalgic nod suggesting Tony may have not only changed again, but even come full circle, resuming his more obscure experiments - if only to mop up the attentions of that hip hop intelligentsia left cold by his persona's last half dozen permutations. A preliminary peek at the track listing redoubles the impression, not least since it kicks off with a tune called Purified Minds, featuring GZA and Killah Priest. Along with RZA (whose enduring absence here suggests the necessary bridges are yet to be built), GZA and Killah Priest remain bywords for the Wu's more serious side, and their inclusion on the opening track certainly looks like a statement of intent.
On some levels, this nod to Starks' earlier incarnation is accurate. The music on Apollo Kids is murky and challenging in a way reminiscent of Supreme Clientele, while Starks' cantankerous, carnal self takes a back seat in a way it hasn't for years, making room for his sheer facility with a mic. But if this latest Starks resembles any other, it is that of Cuban Linx, spitting disembodied couplets crammed with texture and ingenuity: compare Cuban Linx' "check out the rap kingpin, the black Jesus / I know a few niggas sniff coke it cause seizures" with Apollo Kids' "Bankroll so thick I don't need a wishlist / Chain swing down to my torn meniscus".
Fundamentally, Apollo Kids is a decent, engaging underground hip hop album, with a solid spine of tracks running from that opener (as turbulent and rousing as you expect), to Troublemakers, the latest superb collaboration between Ghost, Raekwon, Method Man and Redman.
Arguably, the record's highlight is In Tha Park, a paean to the old school, with a guesting Black Thought and Ghostface attacking a thunderous backing riff as if trying to claw their way through a steel door. In hip hop's endless line dance, where every emcee seems ultimately destined to guest with every other, it is a genuinely thrilling duet.
Overall, the album has its flaws, and doesn't sound anywhere near so inexhaustible as Ironman, Supreme Clientele or Fishscale, but the sound is fresh, the lyrics sharp, and its creator as focussed and demanding as ever.
by Ghostface Killah