Rap albums sometimes rely too heavily on heaps of star power. The names are the selling point, not the beats dropped or the rhymes spit, and especially when one crew/label is the focus then the danger of sounding like a vanity project increases exponentially. The Spirit of Apollo, the debut from new production duo N.A.S.A., expands this posse construct to massive “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” proportions, but for a much more modest cause: to make rap, once “the black CNN,” required and vital programming for audiences that skew Caucasian.
N.A.S.A. (“North America/South America”) pairs Brazilian skateboarder/DJ Ze Gonzales with DJ/producer Sam “Squeak E. Clean” Spiegel, the brother of film and music video director Spike Jonze. Through various industry machinations they’ve assembled a head-spinning lineup of contributions from rap’s royalty (KRS-One, Wu-Tang Clan) and new young lions (Kanye West, M.I.A.), indie-rock legends (Tom Waits, David Byrne) and upstarts (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the freshly renamed Santigold), and the hipster fringe (John Frusciante, George Clinton, Seu Jorge).
In truth, we’ve already been down this road with Prince Paul and Dan the Automator, the technology and guests on their two Handsome Boy Modeling School concept albums parodying and celebrating many forms of pop, rock, and rap. N.A.S.A.’s roster, however, is stronger and more immediate, mimicking a hip-hop talent show full of experiments and straight-up workouts with a shocking minimum of filler.
With rappers and their ilk constantly expanding their embrace of musicality, having actual singers alongside them on The Spirit of Apollo feels like a natural progression through the newest of new jack swing. It’s a testament to the collected skill on this album that even the most leftfield of these collaborations could rightfully be the next Rihanna/Jay-Z track. Take, for example, YYY’s Karen O. handling the chorus of “Strange Enough,” a song otherwise dominated by verses from Fatlip of The Pharcyde and the dearly departed Ol’ Dirty Bastard, or Sizzla teaming up with lovely ladies from Spank Rock and CSS on “A Volta.”
Waits’ signature growl comes off inherently chopped and screwed next to Kool Keith on “Spacious Thoughts,” and Kanye continues his Euro-disco obsession on “Gifted” with assists from Santigold and Lykke Li. Yet the maelstrom of talent is best exemplified in recent leak/single “Money”: Turntablist Z-Trip lends additional production to N.A.S.A.’s beats and rubbery bassline, while Byrne trades lyrics with Public Enemy’s Chuck D (in typical cautionary-tale form) and dancehall rhymer Ras Congo (running through America’s dollar-bill denominations) as Jorge coos a “root of all evil” vocal hook.
Songs like “Money” and Clinton and Chali 2na’s playful “There’s a Party” help The Spirit of Apollo form a vision meant to appeal to understanding music fans in the worlds of rock and rap. It wants to suggest on the sly that if American voters can put a black man in the White House, surely N.A.S.A.’s producers can help insert quality black music into white radio (and maybe white music into black radio as well).