Sam “Squeak E. Clean” Spiegel and Ze “DJ Zegon” Gonzales named their collaboration N.A.S.A.—which stands for North America/South America—to reflect the combination of L.A.-based Spiegel’s specialty in hip-hop and the strong influence of Gonzales’s hometown of São Paolo. The pronounced base line of Brazilian funk is one of the few consistencies on this album, a project five years in the making that features close to 40 artists in often unlikely match-ups.
“Gifted,” the lead single, is the clear standout—maybe it’s just nice to remember that Kanye can actually rap. A verse that outshines most of “808s and Heartbreak,” alongside the nasal voice of Santogold, cuts the sweetness of Lykke Li in a deceptively catchy hook: “So knock me out and shoot me down / With mics in hand, we’ll stand against the test of time.” They rhyme with a confidence that tames the complicated electronic melody.
Santogold returns later on the track “Whatchadoin?” with close friend M.I.A., as well as rapper Spank Rock and Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner. Telephone dial tones, the chanting voice of M.I.A. and a tribal drum beat transform Zinner’s guitar into an infectious rhythm. Spank Rock’s frenetic rhymes provide the verses to round out a solidly danceable hit.
The clear cohesion between the various guest acts and the production of N.A.S.A., which works so well on “Gifted” and “Watchadoin?,” is exactly what is lacking on the less successful tracks. The project at times gets caught up in its own concept—picking unexpected groups of artists out of sheer caprice without regard for their combined sound.
As delightful as it is to imagine Karen O hanging out with Ol’ Dirty Bastard—may he rest in peace—her distinctive vocals on “Strange Enough” are sorely out of place next to a sampled ODB verse about his childhood. “Feelin’ clean, I was only 13 / With the heavy starch on my Bugle Boy jeans,” he raps in an homage to the misguided fashion of the early 90s, only to be interrupted by the strained rock vocals of Karen O’s chorus.
“Spacious Thoughts” pairs Tom Waits with veteran emcee Kool Keith over a mellow drum beat and somber piano melody. The softspoken rhymes of Kool Keith do nothing to balance the larger-than-life Waits, whose emotional delivery gives his portion of song a decidedly more sinister tone, and the song remains fragmented.
The problems in “The Spirit of Apollo,” however, are not found in the individual performances of the album’s many contributors. In fact, even the actual production work of Squeak E. Clean and DJ Zegon, the common denominators of the varied sounds, demonstrates good taste and technical skill. The duo shows off their mastery of audio samples in moderation before cutting loose on the three-minute instrumental “O Pata” near the end of the album. The team exudes confidence in a variety of genres, equally adept with the reggae stylings of Sizzla and Amanda Blank on the dance hall track “A Volta” as with the funk performance of George Clinton on “There’s a Party.”
Despite its intriguing complexity, almost every song on the album suffers from the same shortcoming. With the exceptions of “Gifted,” “Whatchadoin?,” and “The Mayor”—in which The Cool Kids, Ghostface Killah, and Scarface spit over a DJ AM beat—the collaborations lack a raison d’être beyond the whims of N.A.S.A.
The admittedly interesting combinations of performers reveal nothing but the mad skills of the producers. Their work on “The Spirit of Apollo” makes a great audio resumé for N.A.S.A., but it doesn’t make great listening.
—Staff writer Charleton A. Lamb can be reached at email@example.com.