If the Wu-Tang machine has started to run out of steam over the past few years, suffering from a major drought of truly captivating long-players since the turn of the millennium, then their back-to-basics approach to production and in-house guest spots has been a conscious effort to arrest their worrying downward spiral. Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. II was an album deeply entrenched in the old school Wu-Tang philosophy and style, and has duly been singled out as the torchbearer of the Wu renaissance. And despite being one of the stable's only MCs to provide a consistently decent output over his 15-year career (if we forgive the jarring Ghostdeini the Great), it seems Ghostface Killah is also keen to adopt this back-to-basics approach for Apollo Kids. This is an album sheathed in nostalgia: Ghostface's school notebooks adorn the cover art, samples were seemingly plucked from some dusty funk/soul vinyl collection, and the lyrics play like a series of fanciful trips down memory lane, courtesy of certified hip-hop heavyweights at the very top of their game.
And much like Raekwon on his 2009 landmark, Ghostface manages to steal the show despite the esteemed roll of guest spots. His rapid-fire delivery and blitz of sassy metaphors set a high-octane pace. Ghost fronts a torrent of verses loaded with pert pop-culture references and odes to yesteryear, his searing stanzas on "Purified Thoughts" and "Starkology" producing a hatful of cracking couplets that somehow stand out amid his frenzied stream of consciousness. It's also a treat that Apollo Kids isn't bogged down by toothless skit tracks or overly indulgent instrumentals, allowing the emphasis to be placed solely on this strong cast of MCs and the rhymes they bring to the table.
In many ways, then, Apollo Kids can be considered the antithesis to Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Where Kanye's effort was a grand exercise in pomp and delivered a slice of ultramodern hip-hop with all the indulgent trappings and trimmings, this is a compact release that celebrates the staples of vintage rap music and, more specifically, vintage Wu. This is where the nostalgia trip kicks in, with samples that calculatedly point to a time where hip-hop was freely associated with funk. "Superstar" is a bout of '60s psychedelica complete with restless organ work and some suitably grainy samples of an anonymous soul diva that may have thrived way back when, while lead single "2getha Baby" marries sprightly Motown harmonies with distorted synths.
The only significant changes in gear arrive in two disappointing numbers preoccupied with sex, allowing our raconteur to slip back into his Ghostdini persona for some misjudged R&B appeal. Both "How You Like Me Baby" and "Handcuffin' Them Hoes" are terrible, make no mistake, but these slight blips are instantly remedied by an electrifying curtain call where Ghostface, Raekwon, Method Man, Cappadonna, and Redman jostle for position with a volley of stupefying punchlines. And with such an obscenely gifted troupe trading verses back and forth, doing so with a poise that is hardly common in the rap game today, it becomes difficult to deny the momentum gathering behind this Wu renaissance.