Full of isolated and untapped talent, N.A.S.A.’s “The Spirit of Apollo” is a little like the United States’ 2004 Olympic basketball team. North America / South America, a collaborative project headed by Sam Spiegel (Squeak E. Clean) and Ze Gonzales (DJ Zegon), brings together a guest list boasting all-stars from across the music world, including George Clinton, KRS-One, David Byrne, Kool Keith, Tom Waits, E-40, Santigold, M.I.A., the RZA, Scarface, Chali 2na, Del tha Funky Homosapien, Seu Jorge and more. The strange mixture yields a few colorful moments, but the album itself is an underwhelming fantasy playlist, dull and forgettable.
Only a few tracks surpass the general mediocrity. “Spacious Thoughts” pairs Kool Keith and Tom Waits, two great surrealist lyricists from two completely different genres. Keith raps lines like “I was up there watchin’ James Brown’s pockets stuffed with Jolly Ranchers when the NFL had the Rams in Los Angeles” while Waits melodically growls, “My balloon drops down at night, strangling a monkey with the hands of a clock.” The song plays to the strength of both artists and somehow builds a bridge between hip-hop and … Tom Waits.
The best song on the album, “Way Down,” features the RZA of The Wu-Tang Clan, John Frusciante of The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Barbie Hatch. Frusciante’s distorted guitar work establishes a haunting soundscape. The RZA’s verse is solid as the Wu producer’s rapping goes, but it sounds unnecessary next to Barbie Hatch’s vocals. Google Barbie Hatch and you’ll find nothing but her guest spot on this and on one Swollen Members track. That the girl doesn’t have any public exposure is a travesty. Her smooth voice floats beautifully around Frusciante’s guitar licks, channeling Aimee Mann or even Grace Slick. Hatch’s singing is so captivating, you spend the remaining 14 tracks wondering when her solo debut’s coming out.
The first single off “Apollo,” “Money,” is also slightly better than the majority of the album. It features a signature off-kilter chorus by David Byrne, a reggae hook by Ras Congo, a socially conscious verse by Chuck D, and Seu Jorge. At least it claims to feature Seu Jorge. The incredibly talented Brazilian singer/songwriter is for some reason relegated to just a short, barely audible Portuguese monologue. None of the instrumentation sounds good enough to indicate any further involvement by Jorge.
Most tracks on “Apollo,” however, don’t do much more than take up space. N.A.S.A.’s beats get very repetitive and most of the hip-hop verses are uninspired, despite being delivered by established talents. Chali 2na of Jurassic 5 and Del tha Funkee Homosapien of Hieroglyphics, to their credit, do rock the mic with their eccentric deliveries, but they get lost among all the filler. Kanye West speaks the truth when he says, “I’m known for runnin’ my mouth,” on “Gifted.” Then he starts describing his clothing and dropping lines that continue to demonstrate his lack of lyricism or any gifted flow.
“The Spirit of Apollo” is an example of what not to do with your debut album. The guest efforts either sound half-assed or fail to save a project that just wasn’t that great of an idea. N.A.S.A.’s crowning achievement is putting Barbie Hatch on the record.