Ghostface Killah, in his latest record, emerges from the muddled debris of a previous R&B-tinged attempt to put it on the line once more. On Apollo Kids, the 40-year-old calls upon fellow Wu-Tang members, friends and even family to contribute. In the process, he happens to produce a genuine hip-hop success. All of the components for failure are present: He should be too old for rap and his last album was a departure from his usual style. Still, Apollo Kids manages, above it all, to be sincerely entertaining.

Ghostface Killah

Apollo Kids
Def Jam

The lyrics are intelligent (most of the time) and the beats are unique. But what makes Apollo Kids a triumph is Ghostface’s ability to blend grit and finesse. He’s 40, but he knows it, and this knowledge is reflected in the music. In “Drama,” Ghostface raps, “It’s not a code of La Cosa Nostra to roast ya / I get a little closer.” Instead of the juvenile gang violence referenced by most modern rappers, he’s graduated to the maturity of the mafia — a theme that is echoed in other tracks (“Black Tequila”). Likewise, the music has grown up — he doesn’t just rely on a beat and tired, stereotyped rhymes, but he manages to create varied and nuanced verse.

“2getha Baby” is instantly noticeable among the other tracks on Apollo Kids. Though the lyrics are rather ordinary, the song integrates them in a way that makes it unique. It begins with a sample of “Together” by ’60s soul band The Intruders, which repeats throughout the song and brings to mind the era of the Temptations. It is a fusion of old and new, of romantic love and superficial pursuit. Beyond its contrast, it is one of the most bluntly enjoyable tracks on the album.

Occasionally, Ghostface Killah is upstaged by one of the many guests he brings in — though this actually benefits the album. In the Latin-themed “Black Tequila,” Ghostface combines culinary allusions with self-aggrandizing claims (“I’m half black, half oregano / That’s half Italian, who he I’m from that island”), but it’s protégé Trife Diesel who steals the song. As the third and last rapper on the track, he tells the typical rise and fall of a proclaimed “gangsta disciple.” Trife’s segment is brief but effective, and is eventually more memorable than Ghostface’s contribution.

“Purified Thoughts” is easily the album’s pinnacle. Though it may not be obvious initially, listening to the rest of Apollo Kids provides a certain context that makes the song all the more deep and meaningful. It’s intense, rugged and strangely contemplative. The song draws upon Them Two’s soulful “Am I A Good Man,” as Wu-Tang Clan members Ghostface Killah, GZA and Killah Priest discuss, among other things, God, death, heaven and success. It is unsettling in all the right places — after Ghostface Killah’s verse, the sample asks, “Am I a good man? Am I a fool?” to which Killah Priest replies, “Don’t know” and “We’ll see,” respectively.

The song feels like a hip-hop judgment day as each contributor shares his final thoughts. Ghostface Killah fantasizes about his influence on his death day, as he is left “wishin’ they could bury me next to the prophets.” Killah Priest navigates his vision of the afterlife with skillful and precise diction, going through ”hell’s cavity” to “where the jackals be.” GZA finally leaves us off with a heavy appraisal of life and moral compromise: “Where the youths kept comin’ back with they life earnings / Ready to make a deal, soul and pipe burning.” Each line is deep in meaning and it goes to show that Ghostface Killah is still a force to be reckoned with.

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