Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Ghostface Killah 36 Seasons

The first time I interviewed Ghostface Killah, I waited four hours at the “Back Like That” video shoot for a 10-minute sit-down. This was mostly OK. I got to see the rap-promotions machine in action just before that machine rusted into dust. I got to see Ghostface and Ne-Yo standing on flowerpot risers on the roof of a Jersey City apartment complex so that they could strike poses for a crane shot in front of the New York skyline. I got to meet Ne-Yo, who was extremely pleasant. Dave 1 from Chromeo waited the same amount of time to interview Ghost for Vice, and I talked to him for maybe 15 minutes without recognizing him as the guy from Chromeo. (Mostly, I just wondered why the Vice guy was so well-dressed.) At one point, a Wu-Tang associate told me that the crew needed the article I was working on to be “a good one,” made a veiled threat, and then offered to send a girl to my apartment if they liked the article. (I politely declined.) At another point, a bunch of Ghost’s Theodore Unit guys decided they wanted me to interview them, so they grabbed my tape recorder, and this lunacy happened. Even with all that going on, though, I had a lot of time to kill. At one point, I was slumped at a table, reading a comic book and trying not to take up too much space. (I think this is when Marvel’s Civil War was going on, so it was probably one of those.) I heard a voice from above me: “Hey man, what you reading?” I looked up, and Ghostface Killah was standing over me, looking down at my comic book with benign interest. He was wearing a purple bathrobe and a white durag and probably 30 pounds of gold jewelry. He was even bigger than he looks on TV. I may have actually gasped. This was basically like Indiana Jones leaning over your shoulder and asking you about the Warhammer figurine you’re painting. It just about made my brain break.

Ghostface Killah is not a comic book guy. I learned that that day. He was politely interested enough to ask some writer about the comic book he was reading, mostly because he was killing a couple of minutes before filming his next scene. The real comic book guy within Wu-Tang, Ghost told me, is Method Man. (I confirmed this later, when I interviewed Meth. Meth, it turns out, is one of those guys who has a subscription box at his local comic book store; he just walks in, and they hand him a pile of books.) Ghost thinks they’re cool, but they’re not a part of his life. It’s a bit surprising, then, that Ghost’s new album 36 Seasons is a straight-up comic-book project: An album-length narrative about a Staten Island masked vigilante superhero who goes to war with rival criminals and with the cops. The CD booklet is an actual comic-book version of the same story Ghostface raps on the record, and various other rap luminaries play different characters on the album. (Pharoahe Monch, in a pretty inspired casting choice, is the mad scientist who designs Ghostface’s mask, while AZ is the cop friend who goes on to double-cross Ghost.) Ghostface is one of rap’s great storytellers, but the stories he tends to tell are dense, choatic pulpy crime-novel things, not stylized super-warrior stories. He’s into the tactile little details that bring stories down to earth: The bullets whizzing and hitting Clorox bottles in a supermarket shootout, the smell of steak and eggs cooking on the stove of the drug house he’s about to rob. He’s into minutia, not sweep. So it’s vaguely interesting that 36 Seasons wasn’t Ghost’s idea. The entire story comes from comic book writer Matthew Rosenberg, and it seems like the producers approached Ghost and got him involved when the whole narrative had already been laid out. Ghost wrote his own lyrics, of course, but he did it based on a narrative and musical framework that already existed. He’s a leading man who’s also a script doctor.

The album works, though, for reasons that have less to do with its narrative and more to do with the fact that it’s just Ghostface and various crusty New York rap friends going in for 40 minutes. As with Ghostface’s last album, 2013’s Adrian Younge collab 12 Reasons To Die, 36 Seasons unites Ghost with studio-session players who can recreate the ’70s-era soul sound that he loves so much. This time around, his primary collaborators are the Revelations, a New York soul band who have done a ton of work with various Wu-Tang guys over the years. The album has actual rap producers — longtime New York fixture the 45 King, M.O.P.’s Lil Fame working under his Fizzy Womack alter-ego. But even with those guys’ tracks, the Revelations are there to play the music organically. At one point, the action breaks for the band to cover the Persuaders’ 1971 classic “Thin Line Between Love And Hate.” Ghost sounds perfectly at home on this stuff, and so do AZ and Kool G Rap and Pharoahe Monch and the various other guests here. You can follow the narrative if you want, but it’s easier, and more rewarding, to just zone out on the solid orchestral boom-bap. Because of the sponsored-work nature of the album, Ghost’s narrative doesn’t have the breathless urgency that he had on, say, “Shaky Dog” or “Yolanda’s House.” But it’s some of rap’s all-time great voices on late-career cruise-control, over music that just makes sense for them. 36 Seasons isn’t an important or even a great album, but its pleasures are small and durable. It’s a fun listen, and that’s all it needs to be.

Given that is coming out only a week after the Wu-Tang Clan’s grand reunion album A Better Tomorrow, it seems natural to compare the two albums, and to wonder if there’s some release-date passive-aggression going on on Ghost’s part. Ghost seemed barely there on A Better Tomorrow, and he isn’t exactly the most committed member in the reunited Wu-Tang. Maybe he’s registering some displeasure with RZA by releasing his own album almost immediately after the new Wu finally arrived — something that seems more likely when you consider that no other Wu-Tang guys appear on 36 Seasons. More likely, though, I think we’re seeing the beginning of a voraciously productive period from Ghost. For whatever reason, Ghostface simply cannot sit still right now. Sour Soul, his collaborative album with the Toronto jazz group BADBADNOTGOOD, is coming in only a couple of months. He’s also claimed, in different interviews, that he’ll release his long-awaited collaborative album with DOOM next year, as well as the intriguing Supreme Clientele 2. I love the idea of Ghost somehow releasing four albums within a calendar year, like a ’70s jazz musician or something. He’s not doing the whole album-release cycle thing; he’s picking a theme for each release, knocking it out, and moving on to the next one. And while 36 Seasons doesn’t have the same musical-auteur sensibility that RZA brought to A Better Tomorrow, I like it a bit better. It’s shorter, more focused, less weighed down with sleepy verses. Everyone has a role, and everyone plays it. And if it’s not a passion project for Ghost, that’s fine; he’s got a pile of other things he wants to get to. Don’t bet against him doing all of it, either.

36 Seasons is out now on Salvation/Tommy Boy. Stream it here.

Other albums of note out this week:

• The Smashing Pumpkins’ impressive return Monuments To An Elegy.
• J. Cole’s vast leap 2014 Forest Hills Drive.
• E-40’s vast 28-song Sharp On All 4 Corners.
• Band Practice’s ramshackle, enthusiastic Make Nice.
• JMSN’s murky self-titled R&B debut.
• King Of Cats’ messily DIY debut Working Out.
• Canopies’ psychedelic synthpop debut Maximize Your Faith.
• Cretin’s death/grind romp Stranger.
• Taake’s old-school Norwegian black metal wallow Stridens Hus.
• Dimesland’s self-released prog-metal bugout Psychogenic Atrophy.
• Royce Da 5’9″ and DJ Premier’s collaborative album PRhyme.
• Bastille’s collab-heavy “mixtape” VS (Other People’s Heartache Pt. III).
• The new soundtrack for Grand Theft Auto V.
• Paul McCartney’s Hope For The Future EP.
• The Los Campesinos! holiday EP A Los Campesinos! Christmas.
• Ben Frost’s V A R I A N T EP.
• Cave People’s Older EP.
• Cult Of Fire’s ?tvrtá Symfonie Ohn? EP.