Album Review: Apollo Kids

★★★☆☆

Ghostface Killah mystified many longtime fans when he dropped 2009's R&B-inspired flop Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City. Fortunately, he appears to have returned to his distinctive Wu-Tang sound with Apollo Kids, the veteran rapper's ninth studio album.

Apollo Kids, released on Dec. 21 with minimal promotion, is clearly aimed at longtime Ghostface and Wu-Tang fans, a welcome departure from the appeals toward mainstream hip-hop that hindered his previous work.

With Motown beats and the distinctive intense flow that has defined Ghostface's style since Enter the Wu-Tang in 1993, Apollo Kids is heavily rooted in hip-hop nostalgia.

"Purified Thoughts" opens the album on a high note, with Ghostface's distinctive sharp delivery cutting through Frank Dukes' eerie gospel beats. After the opening, which may be Ghostface's best verse on the album, fellow Wu-Tang veteran GZA delivers a solid verse. This gives fans a preview of what they might be hearing on GZA's long-anticipated sequel to his previous album, Liquid Swords; the new album is due out later this year and Ghostface is slotted to be featured heavily.

"In Tha Park," the seventh track, features Ghostface at his best, delivering the gritty street narratives that fans expect. The track survives on its own momentum until the very end with Ghostface's silly repetition: "Hip-hop was set out in the park."

"Superstar" pairs up Ghostface with Def Jam label mate Busta Rhymes in a combination that works surprisingly well. The pair's intensity carries the song, with both MCs spitting even faster than usual over a beat so funky it could have been from the Jackson 5. It's Apollo Kids at its manic best and, like most songs on the album, lasts almost exactly three minutes.

"2getha Baby," the album's first single, has one of the catchiest beats of the year, but suffers from relatively weak rhymes.

The album follows through on its theme but does not exceed expectations. It desperately lacks the narrative structure that allows Ghostface to do what he does best – storytelling. After stealing the show on Raekwon's 2009 album Only Built for Cuban Linx II (billed as a "guest star"), Ghostface has shown that he is capable of producing incredibly good material, but Apollo Kids comes off as just OK.

Regardless, it is nice to see that Ghostface has come back to Wu-Tang style hip-hop; Apollo Kids, if nothing else, is a great preview for 2011. He has already announced a new album, Blue and Cream, slotted for release later this year.