36 Seasons, Ghostface Killah's eleventh solo album, came out of nowhere, announced by Salvation Music (with an assist from Tommy Boy Records) only a few weeks ago. It was surprising because Ghostface has been rumored to have been working on several different projects, including the two listed above and a different collaborative album with Canadian trio BadBadNotGood: 36 Seasons is decidedly none of those. In fact, I received word of its impending release directly from the online retail outfit Get On Down, who typically specializes in creative and clever re-releases of classic hip hop albums: this has to be one of the first instances of Get On Down announcing the release of a brand new project. So, obviously, I bought it immediately. What can I say? Wu stan for life, and all that entails.
36 Seasons is actually the byproduct of two different projects. It's story-driven concept is obviously reminiscent of Twelve Reasons To Die, where producer Adrian Younge manned the boards throughout Pretty Toney's giallo-esque horror-revenge flick, with each track furthering the story along. The second project was more of a series that started with the Wu-Tang Clan side projects Wu-Tang Chamber Music and Legendary Weapons, two albums that saw various members of the Clan working alongside outside acts over musical backdrops provided by an outfit called The Revelations, who specialize in an updated soulful sound that easily translates to our chosen genre. Basically, 36 Seasons is what would have happened had Legendary Weapons been a Ghostface Killah album.
The story, as it goes, is fairly simple: Pretty Toney returns home after spending nine years away, and he finds that things aren't the same. Facing a series of complications, he plots to take back what was rightfully his. That's pretty much it. Ghost switched up the genre from horror to action, which is fine, since I think we all would have gotten bored had he released a direct sequel to Twelve Reasons To Die. (Oh, who am I kidding? I would welcome that shit into my home and hand it a drink, and I'll get the chance to, allegedly, next year.) That album cover is still pretty terrifying and cool, though.
However, this time around, Ghost was merely following a blueprint set forth by Bob Perry (A&R for The RZA's Soul Temple Records, the label that released Twelve Reasons To Die but, curiously, not 36 Seasons) and Matthew Rosenberg, who came up with the original storyline. 36 Seasons was completed in eleven days, which is fucking ridiculous, but that's because Ghostface and his supporting crew, made up almost entirely of non-Wu affiliates, merely dropped in and knocked out their contributions fairly quickly (it helps that Perry recruited fellow New York acts Kool G. Rap, AZ, Pharoahe Monch, and Nems to fill the ranks) while The Revelations, with assists from fellow Wu-Tang Chamber Music and Legendary Weapons producers Andrew Kelley and Fizzy "Lil' Fame" Womack, crafted their best blaxploitation riffs.
The two of you still paying attention may have read that last paragraph as stating 36 Seasons isn't really a Ghostface Killah album, and it isn't, in that our host technically came into the project after the idea had been fully formed: all he had to do was write around an outline. As in most action movies, Ghost doesn't appear in every scene: four out of fourteen tracks on 36 Seasons don't even feature the star performer. However, he still receives top billing, since, out of everyone in the Wu-Tang Clan that Perry could have asked, Ghostface is really the only one who could pull off a project of this nature.
(Yes, Raekwon's Cuban Linx... albums could also be technically categorized as album-length narratives, but Ghostface's last two projects have been marketed as actual stories and not as "well, if you listen to the album this way...")
It was pointed out to me by a reader on Twitter that, ever since 2000's The W, Ghostface Killah has dropped a solo project in the same year as each Wu-Tang Clan group effort, almost as though he were trying to hedge his bets and keep his name on Santa's nice list, just in case the likes of Iron Flag, 8 Diagrams, or (ugh) A Better Tomorrow failed to resonate with the fans that still follow the man's career. While I don't believe in comparing an artist's work to that of his group, let's just say that Pretty Toney's tactics may have worked wonders for him this year.
1. THE BATTLEFIELD (FEAT. KOOL G. RAP, AZ, & TRE WILLIAMS)
Pretty Toney returns home after nine years (or 36 Seasons, conveniently enough) on this stage-setting gem with a dope beat and an unnecessary Tre Williams hook (hey, he was once the lead singer of The Revelations and a founding member, so his participation was to be expected, even though his new affiliation with Nas makes me wonder why Esco wasn't invited to participate on this project) that still sounded alright. Ghostface is shocked to see how much Staten Island has changed since he was away, while guest stars G. Rap and AZ introduce themselves to the story as drug kingpin Future and police officer Rog (who isn't named in this track), respectively. Everyone does a great job at the exposition-heavy track: Ghost certainly has some great collaborators to help weave his tale. (But no Raekwon? Boooo!) This introduction to 36 Seasons is a winner, guys, and it's also subtly ominous, but that could be me still thinking about Twelve Reasons To Die, but still.
2. LOVE DON'T LIVE HERE NO MORE (FEAT. KANDACE SPRINGS)
Already, shit isn't going well for Pretty Toney he goes to visit his old girlfriend Bamboo and discovers that she has since moved on, because, well, it's been nine goddamn years. You probably put all of that together by reading the song title, right? Ghost isn't entirely successful with playing a man in denial: even he has to understand that his girl would eventually move on, especially if, as she explains, he left without even telling her. So that part rings false. But the music underneath Ghost's strangely Cappadonna-esque bars is decent enough, and guest crooner Kandace Springs plays her supporting role in the story pleasantly enough. Not really that great of a song, though. For some reason, Ghost's people dropped "Love Don't Live Here No More" as a first single-slash-teaser for 36 Seasons: whoever approved of that shit should have been fired fucking yesterday.
3. HERE I GO AGAIN (FEAT. AZ & RELL)
Ghost meets up with AZ's cop, and the two build upon their shared experiences growing up together and set up preliminary plans to take back the
4. LOYALTY (PERFORMED BY KOOL G. RAP & NEMS)
Take a quick look at that credit. That's right: Pretty Toney doesn't appear at all on the short "Loyalty", instead allowing the story to build around Kool G. Rap and Brooklyn-based relative unknown Nems (who sounds an awful lot like our hero) and their plotting and scheming. Future has put in a lot of work to earn his spot, and has no plans to relinquish control anytime soon, G. Rap's menace shining through beautifully. Nems is more of a mixed bag: although he sounds alright behind the mic playing the guy angling to do Future's dirty work, he also throws in a lot of Wu-Tang Clan bars throughout his verse, taking the listener briefly out of the experience altogether. Still, this shit was really good: the string-based instrumental may sound stereotypically crime-tale-like due to an abundance of copycats in the rap game, but that doesn't mean "Loyalty" is strictly cliche.
5. IT'S A THIN LINE BETWEEN LOVE AND HATE (PERFORMED BY THE REVELATIONS)
The Revelations snag a track of their own, performing a cover of the Persuaders standard of the same name. It does sound pretty good, and it serves the dual purpose of inching the story forward while giving the audience an opportunity to exhale, but after two full tracks, I'm sure the two of you are missing Ghostface, aren't you?
6. THE DOGS OF WAR (FEAT. SHAWN WIGS & KOOL G. RAP)
Curiously, Ghost looks to his Theodore Unit crew and plucks Shawn Wigs and not Trife Diesel for the role of his lieutenant Mig on "The Dogs Of War": maybe Trife was too busy working a triple shift at Rite Aid the day this track was recorded? Anyway, this shit was dope: the instrumental is fast-paced and immediate, giving Ghost and his boy the motivation needed to take on Future, which, well, let's just say everything blows up in Ghostface's, um, face, literally. (It's a wrap for Kool G. Rap, by the way. Oh, sorry! SPOILER ALERT!) By the way, the storytelling on here is fascinating in its attention to detail: it isn't really a shock that Ghost and G. Rap can pull off a tale like this, but the fact that they can still do it this deep into their respective careers is damn near heartwarming.
7. EMERGENCY PROCEDURE (FEAT. PHAROAHE MONCH)
Mig manages to save a nearly-lifeless Tony Starks by way of an "Emergency Procedure" administered by Dr. X, played here by Pharoahe Monch. (This is all explained away in a brief skit that ends the preceding song, one that earns itself its own title, "Explosive Get Away Skit", in the liner notes, if not on the tracklisting.) Conveniently, the good Dr. X affixes a mask onto our host's face that allows him to breathe through all of the poison his lungs have taken in; and here you all thought that album cover was just a throwback to his early days in the Wu-Tang Clan. The underlying music is funkier than one would imagine, and our hero spends too much time (during an unnecessary chorus) explaining how Dr. X has created a "work of art", but the verses themselves were solid enough, and Monch exhibits a focus rarely seen on his own solo material.
8. DOUBLE CROSS (FEAT. AZ)
Uh oh. That song title doesn't bode well for the newly-rebuilt Ghostface Killah, who apparently has written into his contract that each of his story-based concept albums (of which there have been two) must include his rebirth of sorts. Hey, dude has a preference. As you can definitely tell by that song title, our hero is double-crossed by his guest, the crooked police officer Rog, who has had his hand in the pie this entire time and essentially used Ghost to help take out some of his competition for him, as evidenced by his closing verse. Ghost leaves Dr. X and seeks out Bamboo, leading to him getting arrested for no reason as a power play (not only does Rog want to be kept apart from Ghost's attack, he also harbors a crush on his ex-girlfriend) and as our host's (timely, sadly) commentary on police corruption and brutality. Rhyme-wise, AZ becomes a goddamn sight to see/hear when he is forced to follow a guideline and not left to his own devices: his performance is Doe Or Die-levels of good. The track itself only exists to move the tale along, though, so you probably won't be adding it to any of your mixtapes or playlists.
9. BAMBOO'S LAMENT (PERFORMED BY KANDACE SPRINGS)
Ghost's ex-girl Bamboo receives a solo showcase, and, true to the song title, she laments not waiting for our hero, although, once again, it makes perfect sense that she would have moved on. He never even called her, people! The fuck was she supposed to know what was going on? Ghost won't even clue the listener in on what he had been doing for the past nine years! This track was pleasant and short: I like that Ghostface Killah is confident enough in the story that he doesn't feel the need to appear in every scene.
10. PIECES TO THE PUZZLE (FEAT. AZ)
On which Ghost fits together all of the "Pieces To The Puzzle" and makes the tactical decision to go after Rog directly, a dude who has known him "since Thriller", as AZ so eloquently puts it. Another track meant to move the story forward, it suffers from a chorus that the listener really doesn't need to hear in order to figure out what the hell is going on, but both Ghost and AZ spit their shit with conviction, and right now I just realized who our host should do his next concept album with: none other than Prince motherfucking Paul. You all know that shit would be good, and he even has an in with him thanks to his Wu-Tang connection with The RZA. Make this happen, Interweb! Kickstart it if necessary!
11. HOMICIDE (FEAT. NEMS & SHAWN WIGS)
So Nems is still pissed about how everything went down earlier , resulting in there being no more Future in his frontin', so he sends a message to Pretty Toney by taking out his man Mig (sorry, Wigs). Nems may still sound like a younger Ghost on here, but that just means he sounds alright, and he doesn't drop a bunch of Wu references this time around, so. Our host immediately goes into retaliation mode as well, plotting the death and damnation of all of his accumulated enemies with hilarious results ("I wipe my dick on your spaghetti fork, n---a!") over a fast-paced, relentless Revelations instrumental that bangs. Shawn Wigs does chime in on the hook, but it makes sense that he doesn't do all that much more.
12. BLOOD IN THE STREETS (FEAT. AZ)
Well, that fight escalated quickly. Apparently drawing inspiration from a Michael Bay movie, Ghostface Killah goes after everyone who has ever wronged him, resulting in a bomb exploding in the middle of the street, taking with it AZ and Nems, who doesn't appear on this track but we can safely assume is pretty much done, as he doesn't pop up anywhere else on 36 Seasons. The Revelations, with an assist from legendary producer Mark the 45 King, get their action-flick on, eack drum kick mirroring a frantic second in Ghost's world while he sets his (far-fetched) plan into motion. This shit was pretty great even before AZ turned in a goddamn perfect verse. Yeah, I said it. You know, if AZ's albums sounded anything like this, I would have gotten back to the guy's back catalog years ago. Son is a revelation here (excuse the pun).
13. CALL MY NAME
Now that everyone is dead except for Bamboo, somehow, Ghost finally returns to her side, and she's happy to have him. He brings with him a newly-formed understanding of her actions and a promise to do better by her. Because the only real reason he returned home after nine years was to be with her. Interesting that our hero would throw a sly love story into the midst of all of this goofy The Expendables-level action violence. Still, it works. Also, this is the only track on 36 Seasons on which Ghost performs all by his lonely.
14. I LOVE YOU FOR ALL SEASONS (PERFORMED BY THE REVELATIONS)
Similar to Twelve Reasons To Die, 36 Seasons ends with an instrumental track that the end credits would scroll over had this shit been an actual movie. It sounds pretty good: it's a perfect way to wind down from the craziness we've just experienced.
(If you purchase 36 Seasons from Best Buy or directly from Get On Down, the instrumental version of the album begins to play immediately after "I Love You For All Seasons".)
THE LAST WORD: First off, comparing 36 Seasons to last week's Wu-Tang Clan release A Better Tomorrow is a fool's errand: it's categorically impossible to consider these projects as peers, since A Better Tomorrow features Ghostface Killah co-starring alongside eight other dudes. So you won't read from me which one I think is "better". What I will do is compare 36 Seasons to Ghost's last story-based concept album, Twelve Reasons To Die, and on that note, it's not quite as solid. The story on here is alright at best (it hits all of the right beats, but it's a formula we've all seen done before), but the rhymes (especially from our host and AZ) push the tale to the forefront: most of the contributors on this album have never had to consider an ongoing narrative while spitting verses on their own shit before, and everyone does a commendable job. AZ, in particular, steals the show, which is a sentence I never thought I would ever write out, but here we are. And it isn't like Ghostface sounds lazy behind the mic or anything: his bars are as potent, antagonistic, and hilarious as ever. Where 36 Seasons slips is behind the boards: while a few of the instrumentals bang, the great majority of the work The Revelations do doesn't sound quite as complete as what Adrian Younge was able to pull off with Twelve Reasons To Die. Fellow Wu members are also missed: I can only assume that Ghost grew tired of his boys during the A Better Tomorrow studio sessions and decided to take a break from them to record this shit. But while 36 Seasons isn't perfect, it's still more imaginative than a lot of rap albums released these days, and Ghostface Killah's sincerity and shit-talking behind the microphone are always welcome.
Wu here, and Ghostface Killah solo here. You know what to do.