Starting around 2001’s Bulletproof Wallets, the Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah has incorporated wide-ranging musical styles and structures into his solo albums, with varying degrees of success. With some exceptions (like his sexed-up Missy Elliott collaboration “Tush”, off 2004’s The Pretty Toney Album, and 2009’s R&B exploration Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City), most of Ghost’s albums since Supreme Clientele have sounded like ’90s East Coast rap even as they favored melody and chord progression over the choppier, more barren hardcore sounds the RZA built the Wu empire on.
Following last year’s Twelve Reason to Die, a collaboration with Los Angeles composer Adriane Young that owed to the Italian murder mystery/slasher film genre giallo, Ghost has teamed with Brooklyn band The Revelations for vintage grooves on his 11th solo album, 36 Seasons. The group, led by vocalist Rell Gaddis, even get a velvety cover of The Persuaders’ 1971 R&B hit “Thin Line Between Love and Hate” to themselves, with lengthy instrumental passages throughout the album (including the all-instrumental closer, “I Love You for All Seasons”). With nothing but this musicianship — a crop of sinister guitar slices, flaring horns, and fat drums — 36 Seasons would still be a rewarding and brisk listening experience, with its contours ranging from the plushness of ’60s and ’70s soul to the nostalgic warmth of classicist hip-hop. On the other hand, the accompaniment of a Ghostface album, whether produced by RZA or otherwise, is always secondary to what he does on the mic.
Twenty-one years after claiming the first verse on the Wu’s debut, Ghost is still a distinct writer, filling his verses with realistic characters and seedy situations. Like Twelve Reasons to Die, 36 Seasons is another comic-inspired endeavor (the CD packaging will include some 20 pages of illustrations by Matthew Rosenberg). The plot: Tony Starks (Ghost) is resurrected by one Dr. X, though he now requires a mask to breathe (as outlined on “The Dogs of War” and “Emergency Procedure”, sequenced back-to-back on the album). Returning to Staten Island after nine years (“That’s 36 seasons,” he calculates for you on “The Battlefield”), he’s chiefly concerned with reuniting with former flame Bamboo (portrayed by Blue Note Records singer Kandace Springs, who absolutely gets her shine on “Love Don’t Live Here No More” and “Bamboo’s Lament”) and police corruption.
Starks isn’t mentioned by name until the third song here, “Here I Go Again”; the storyline unfurls slowly at first, with more grittiness than Ghost could provide by himself. Along with former Revelations frontman and Nas collaborator Tre Williams, Queens’ Kool G Rap (who appears on three 36 Seasons songs in total), and Brooklyn’s AZ (five), Ghost populates “The Battlefield” with dealers, fiends, and helpless youth. As he leads the rest of the way, 36 Seasons becomes a criminological narrative that’s among his best work since 2006’s Fishscale.
As for Ghost’s sheer rapping, he’s not at peak performance on 36 Seasons, but it doesn’t feel like he’s lost a step either — he’s somewhere between the two, which is still a good place to be. “The Dogs of War” is highlighted by Ghost’s forthright surveillance of the cause-and-effect nature of drug dealing: “I see laboratories, chemicals and shit/ They cookin’ right here on the block, I’m throwin’ a fit/ Destructo, destroying houses like wrecking balls.” Apart from the tracks in which he doesn’t appear at all, “Call My Name” is the only track with Ghost riding solo around Staten Island, and he takes the opportunity to stake his claim: “The almighty GFK, the masked avenger/ New York’s top contender, city defender.” Typed out, that may not look like much, but it’s the song’s placement on the album (toward the end, after Ghost has shown enough artistry that you can believe his “top contender” thesis) that makes it more climactic and, well, meaningful.
Then again, Ghost isn’t telling the whole story on that “Call My Name” hook: If he’s the top contender, the rest of his clique isn’t far behind. The week before 36 Seasons drops, Wu will release A Better Tomorrow, which will probably sell a lot more units than Ghost’s album. In fact, Ghost himself has said it’s the best thing the Wu have done since Wu-Tang Forever, which was forever ago — 17 years to be exact. But don’t let the difference in anticipation level (36 Seasons was announced just two weeks ago, whereas we first caught wind of A Better Tomorrow in April) fool you. With the storyline, Ghost’s reliably specific penmanship, and The Revelations’ involvement, 36 Seasons is the result of consummate artistic process and taste — a complete album both lyrically and musically. The sum of Wu is greater than the sum of its parts, but 36 Seasons is a reminder that at least one of the parts has it in him to speak for the style and the impact of the entire group.
Essential Tracks: “The Battlefield” (feat. Kool G Rap and AZ), “Love Don’t Live Here No More” (feat. Kandace Springs), and “Call My Name”