36 Seasons was released the week after Wu-Tang Clan’s new album, A Better Tomorrow, and the way Ghostface has just moved on with his solo career in the face of a new Wu-Tang album – which should be an event, at least a celebration of the group’s 20-plus years – is curious. Granted, it might not be a bad move to just head on to the next project, to get out from under the expectations A Better Tomorrow shoulders and ultimately can’t live up to. Ghostface Killah has plenty in the works: another Wu Block album, a collaborative record with BADBADNOTGOOD, all following 36 Seasons. The album is billed as a solo record, but with multiple performances from AZ and Kool G Rap, as well as music provided by Brooklyn soul outfit the Revelations, Ghostface seems to have just surrounded himself with a different clan for this outing.
But if the people are different, the approach feels pretty familiar. We’ve got another concept album around Ghostface alter-ego Tony Starks, and the story of betrayal and revenge sounds pretty similar to Twelve Reasons to Die. The soul music provided by the Revelations just hones in directly on music that’s been at the heart of the best Ghostface records. Couple this focus on soul, not just soul-inspired hip-hop, along with great turns by veterans AZ and Kool G Rap, as well as Pharoahe Monch, and you’ve got an album that feels like a declaration from rap elder statesmen.
If that sounds a bit dry, in practice 36 Seasons sounds great. The Revelations can deliver stripped down grooves like the rainy-night vibe of “Here I Go Again”, or get lean and funky on “The Dogs of War”, or deliver their own bittersweet soul with their take on “A Thin Line Between Love and Hate”. Especially in contrast to the difficult, uneven beats on A Better Tomorrow, Ghostface and his fellow rappers feel at home in this music. They’re given deep grooves but also room to roam. Pharoahe Monch does just that on “Emergency Procedure”. The music recalls another inspiration for this album – blaxploitation soundtracks – and Monch whips himself up into a linguistic frenzy. AZ, here playing Starks friend-turned-cop, struts across each song, especially on “Double Cross” and “Pieces to the Puzzle”.
The joy in hearing this album comes in the moments these rappers deliver bars that sound effortless, locked in with the music behind them. Ghostface pulls off the same trick, but for him it’s less of a feat on 36 Seasons. He and Raekwon have distanced themselves from their Wu brethren with their impressionistic tales of drugs and violence, ones rooted in details both surgical and absurd. Ghostface can tell you a story of a shootout and make the fries someone eats in the car on the way to the crime fascinating. That detail is deeply lacking on 36 Seasons. Here, Ghostface has become a sort of hip-hop Hemingway, telling everything in terse lines, constructing basic sentences that (he hopes) convey deeper layers of meaning. What we get instead, is a blow by blow of Tony Starks’ story – the packaging includes a comic version as well – but with very few of the details to flesh it out. It’s not surprising to see that Bamboo, Starks’ left-behind lover, doesn’t miss him on “Love Don’t Live Here No More” because the Starks of 36 Seasons is hard to fully see. “I’m back after nine years, that’s 36 seasons / shit has changed up for all types of reasons,” he raps to open the record. But as the album goes on, it’s hard to see what exactly has changed.
The only difference on the Staten Island neighborhood that this story takes place in, it seems, is the absence of Tony Starks. But, as the album goes on, it’s clear this is only a problem for Tony. Starks doesn’t like that his friend became a cop. He doesn’t like that his girlfriend moved on. He doesn’t like that young drug dealers aren’t dealing the way he would. In a way, it’s hard not to think of this as Ghostface speaking metaphorically about rap. Wu-Tang Clan is not what it once was. Ghostface made the solid Twelve Reasons to Die, but we’re not talking about his albums like we were when Fishscale came out (almost nine years ago). To just put 36 Seasons on and listen to it is to be entertained, but to dig into the details, or lack of details, is to perhaps see a frustrated artist, one working through various projects to recapture something. His flow is solid on this album, and there’s no reason to suggest Ghostface is done, but if he is trying to recapture something, all we get here is sound and fury.