All the artists I find the most compelling have two sides, impulses that might seem contradictory but end up coming together to produce something compelling. Think of Sex Pistols’ simultaneous punk rage and unapologetic money-grubbing, or N.W.A.’s desire to be both political and obscene. Ghostface Killah’s difference engine is that he wants to be king of the streets and king of the sheets: he makes tracks about violent drug-deals-gone-wrong, but also seduction raps talking fast to ladies. He’s got a musical split to match, able to run ragged over frantic, stripped-down breaks, or sit plush in mellower, fuzzy soul tracks. On what’s still probably Ghost’s single greatest album, Supreme Clientele, these two impulses met and melded on a stretch that balanced aggressive, dark tracks like “Mighty Healthy” with classic crooners like “Nutmeg” and “Cherchez La Ghost.”
Ghostface has definitely never fallen off, but striking that balance seems to have gotten tougher — even a gem like Fishscale was aggressively focused on hard beats and drug raps, and Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in the Emerald City took a significantly less successful swing at modern R&B. Especially coming off that album, maybe the only fullblown misstep Ghost has ever made, it’s tantalizing to crack into Apollo Kids, named after one of the best tracks from Clientele. Such obvious attempts to reclaim a peak can be painful — remember how we all groaned at Stillmatic? — but Ghost damn near delivers on the promise.
The nominal single “2getha Baby” comes closest to bridging the two sides of Ghost, but rather than the smooth integration of “Cherchez La Ghost,” it’s a quick cut from soul to boom-bap that’s jarring and electric. The album is punctuated with these little bits of daring, and while the Tears For Fears hook dropped into “Starkology” may be a bridge too far, this is why Ghost will always matter — it sounds like a contradiction, but he’s settled comfortably into the idea that hip-hop is about pushing forward. He’s not trying to deny his age and (metaphorical) weight, though — he and Black Thought give us a firsthand history lesson with “In the Park,” which takes off from early Def Jam rock heaviness, anchored by a grimy guitar line. He also comes with timely grown talk on “Handcuffin’ Them Hoes”: “On some Teena Marie shit/ I’m talkin’ square biz.”
Jay-Z made a splash a few years back by declaring “I don’t wear jerseys/ I’m 30 plus.” But now we’re starting to enter new territory — rappers with still-vital styles and careers who are in their forties and even fifties (GZA, who’s 45, is like a man reborn on “Purified Thoughts”). It’s tempting to think of hip-hop as a game for young folks, and there are certainly rappers out there who lose their edge and fall off. But even Ghost’s harder side always had a little Danny Glover to it, ready to take care of business as necessary but always already too old for this shit. That little creeping hint of weariness or frustration underneath his hunger is what makes Ghost a grown-up rapper — he knows it’s hard out there, and he’s talking to all of us who know it, too. But he also knows that there’s a point to all that struggle, the chance of coming out on top. Ghost has had his share of ups and downs, but Apollo Kids finds him back near the top — and as he puts it here, “Peace to the food chain, that how it meant to be.”