[Def Jam; 2010]

You may not have noticed, but Ghostface Killah has pretty much been struggling since ‘01. His name carries enough weight for it to be easy to ignore, but Ghost’s records haven’t exactly been flying off the shelves for the last decade. Like most of the rappers prominent in the eighties or nineties, Ghost has been essentially filed away to the realm of respected MC’s who sell to heads and snobs. While rappers like KRS took this in stride – and in fact seem to revel in catering to an audience actually invested – things don’t work that way for Ghostface and crew.

When the Wu hit the scene they couldn’t have been more direct: they were all about the C.R.E.A.M., man. While the music they make may have gradually slid into the respectable rather than popular, good luck telling that to Ghostface. He started a career rooted in commercial relevance, and has spent the last several years looking for that same spark. It’s led to name changes, a Def Jam signing, collaborations with Ne-Yo and Amy Whinehouse, and – lo and behold – an R&B album.

Some call Ghostface rap’s most respectable sellout; try and say Ghost didn’t rule over “Back Like That” – before he reached out, who would’ve thought Ne-Yo could drop in on a damn near perfect cut. Even producing the dreaded Ghostdini Ghost couldn’t drop a pure dud. Sellout? Well, no. NO. The man’s one of the most enduring, consistent figures in hip hop history, and if it’s continued relevance he wants, we should count our blessings.

In the Ghostface agenda, Apollo Kids makes perfect sense. Fans everywhere had a fit after Ghostdini and clamored for that “old” Ghost: simple gangsta themes, the soul samples, Wu members featured every which where; all the hallmarks, all in place within this bite-size album. The best way to get a hold on this record – which more or less simply materialized – is Ghostface giving fans-turned-detractors exactly what they were asking for on a simple quickie of an album before moving on to the next bigger thing.

So, in all fairness, this should have been a rather small affair, and coming in at 12 tracks, it’s just that. However, it resulted in something unexpected: it’s Ghostface’s best work since 2006’s Fishscale, outdoing the grander Big Doe Rehab with ease and grace. Album opener “Purified Thoughts” is as grandiose as the best Wu, and a visit from GZA makes for a perfect slice of the Clan, “Black Tequila”’s drum-based groove makes for a breezy listen, “2getha Baby”’s rushing vibe recalls the best of the Ironman days; in short, it’s all here. It doesn’t stop there, either. Ghost gets a rare guest spot out of none other than Black Thought for the grand, nostalgic “In tha Park”, makes better use of Sheek Louch on “Street Bullies” than near anything on Don Gorilla, and “Ghetto” made this very site’s Top 50 Tracks of the Year. Need you hear more?

A calculated effort to return to his fan’s good graces? Right down to its recycled title, certainly. Yet, if anything, Apollo Kids is the biggest reason to get excited about Ghost in years; putting out a seemingly rushed disc, he’s outdone much of his recent work. If he accomplished that here, imagine what he’ll do with a project he’s entirely devoted to. Considering Blue & Cream and a sequel to Supreme Clientele are on the horizon, we should know soon enough.