There was a brief moment a decade ago when if you rubbed your eyes and squinted closely, Ghostface Killah could pass for one of the greatest living rappers. Since batting leadoff on the first song from Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers to his underwater adventures with Spongebob and Ronald Isley on 2006’s Fishscale, Ghost’s discography was nearly flawless and never seemed to slip up. While other contenders retired and unretired, had their career’s cut far too short to due to tragedy, or simply fell off, Ghost was hip-hop’s great creative constant—rap’s Hank Aaron wracking up records over decades through sheer statistical consistency.
It’s been nearly nine years since Ghostface Killah was truly a relevant force in hip-hop culture, though. Fishscale was adored by critics and hip-hop heads who found the Staten Island swordsman at the absolute peak of his artistic superpowers, landing the album on numerous Top 10 lists in 2006. Unfortunately, each post-Fishscale album suffered from diminishing returns dwindling toward last year’s lackluster concept album Twelve Reasons to Die that seemed to signal that Ghostface had not only run out of ideas but had lost the live-wire charisma that made him a star in the first place.
After an illustrious career that positioned him as a genuine rap deity, Ghostface should not feel the need to prove anything as an artist anymore, but his new album, 36 Seasons, signals that Tony Starks disagrees with that sentiment. The 11th album of his solo career finds Ghost rawer and more focused than the venerated veteran has been in almost a decade, delivering a crisp 40-minute album that will thrill Ghostface loyalists.
Like the album’s immediate predecessor, 36 Seasons is a concept album that centers around a singular narrative. On the album, Ghostface returns to his native Staten Island after a mysterious nine-year absence (or “36 seasons” as Ghost symbolically declares on the album’s opening track, “The Battlefield”) to discover that his old neighborhood is unfamiliar and plagued with corruption and decay everywhere he looks. "See how fucked up it is? Crackheads on every corner/Kids in the schoolyard smoking marijuana," Ghost raps on the opener to set the dystopian stage for the entire album. Soon, a terrible accident leaves Ghost in a specialized mask that keeps him alive, and the super heroic MC decides to save his hood from the evil within amid encounters with crooked cops, wicked drug kingpins, and scorned lovers.
the new album works because the cinematic thrust of the songs is focused to Ghost’s strengths as a natural storyteller.
Twelve Reasons to Die unsuccessfully toyed with ideas similar to 36 Seasons, but the new album works because the cinematic thrust of the songs is focused to Ghost’s strengths as a natural storyteller in his rhymes. "Raj came quick like he's suppose to, I'm going postal/Caught a gang member, blew him bicoastal/Brains all over the block, it's hot/Crooked cops running up in the game to see my plot," Stark raps, describing a scene of murderous revenge on "Blood in the Streets." Going back to his days as the co-host on his Wu-Tang brother Raekwon’s seminal Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Ghostface has always shown a keen interest in making movies on wax. He's pulling double duty as an actor/director on the project as his new album feels almost like a small indie crime movie that has obvious influences in the blaxploitation films of his youth. Ghost wisely recruits several of his fellow rap legends to play key roles in his “movie”: AZ shows up on multiple tracks as a crooked officer, Kool G Rap plays the neighborhood kingpin, while Pharaohe Monch almost steals the whole damn album playing a demented surgeon on album highlight “Emergency Procedure.” There are even songs on the album where Ghostface disappears entirely to drive the narrative forward, a bold move on a solo album that bares his name.
The album’s musical landscape is provided by Brooklyn soul collective the Revelations whose live instrumentation gives the LP the definitive feel of a blaxploitation soundtrack. A particular highlight is the group’s cover of the Persuaders’ 1971 classic “A Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” which unexpectedly drives the album’s narrative forward. Ghostface has far more chemistry with the Revelations on 36 Seasons than he did with producer Adrian Younge on Twelve Reasons to Die. Ghost’s voice seems to have a hunger behind it that hasn’t been present in his music in awhile, and there is a confidence in the way he delivers words on 36 Seasons that has been missing over the last couple of years. "Call me Mr. Clean, a.k.a. Starkiano/Nine years later slid across the Verrazano/Clean sweep, apply pressure to the scum/This is my town, Stapleton is where I'm from," Ghost delivers with authority on "Here I Go Again" as if to reclaim his spot in hip-hop canon.
Ghostface Killah is not the greatest rapper of all-time, but that is not a reflection upon his resumé; no resumé is good enough. There is an inherent absurdity in hip-hop’s obsession with declaring supremacy of one artist over another in a type of music as diverse and global as this genre is. Great artists flag and fall off, reduce themselves to hollow corporate mascots, or die before their time. 36 Seasons is a great album, but it doesn’t prove his superiority any more than his previous discography entries. What it does prove is that great artists can still come back to making great art again.