For a gangsta rapper, Ghostface Killah seems to watch a lot of women's television. The Wu-Tang Clan alumnus not only name-checks Oprah and Desperate Housewives during the course of Apollo Kids, his ninth solo album, but at one stage admits to "watching Rachel Ray all day". Although the revelation is probably made with tongue firmly in cheek, some listeners may take it as evidence that Ghostface has gone a bit soft.
Fear not. Despite conjuring-up images of the big guy decked out in an apron and covered in flour, there are plenty of other lines that suggest Ghostface's real expertise remains in handling a ghetto existence, and those domestic references sit side-by-side with his more recognisable verses about, well... being a gangsta rapper.
It would be a mistake to get too hung up on a few throwaway lines, except that the eccentricity and sense of humour that the rapper uses to describe his exploits - be they culinary or criminal - has also clearly influenced the unconventional selection of beats and retro samples that make up his latest clutch of songs. Like the purple scrapbook that adorns the album's sleeve covered with green and yellow stickers, Apollo Kids is a gloriously multi-coloured affair. The "kids" in question? Almost certainly the other members of the Staten Island rap troupe and their close affiliates, many of whom make appearances here.
The opener, Purified Thoughts, featuring GZA and Killah Priest, has an old-school soul sample at its core that leaves the track feeling both bold and sorrowful with its "Am I a good man?" refrain. The retro sounds continue on the Busta Rhymes-featuring number, Superstar, with an array of keys, guitar licks and female backing vocals that could have been lifted straight from the Shaft soundtrack. The pre-hip-hop flavour continues on the first single, 2getha Baby, with another vintage soul sample providing the chorus, but the sparser sound backing up the rapper's boast-filled verses doesn't meld with the rest of the track as well as it should.
The album reaches its high-point with In Tha Park, a wistful ode to the early days of hip-hop, with references to Public Enemy, Jazzy Jeff and "old Memorex cassettes". With its crashing drums, slow-burning riff and even liberally sprinkled scratches, the track is a nod to the sound made famous by the Beastie Boys producer and the Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin. Such wilfully nostalgic jams find their way on to plenty of contemporary hip-hop albums, but rarely do they feel this vital and well-considered.
Apollo Kids is a welcome return to form after last year's inert R&B-inspired project, Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City, though even its finest tracks still struggle to live-up to Kilo, Back Like That or other well-known cuts from his 2006 masterpiece, Fishscale.
But with the rap genre suffering a creative slump in recent years, Ghostface seems to have stumbled upon a way of enlivening its sound without doing anything he or his peers haven't tried before. While Kanye West has won plaudits for giving mainstream hip-hop a lavish, future-looking facelift, with his latest album Ghostface has done something that feels almost as creative but without losing sight of what hip-hop has grown to become, and with far less grandstanding.