Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: dashing bon vivant Tony Stark is mangled in a horrifying accident on the job, is resurrected by a confluence of mad science and divine intervention, strikes out to defend his turf and smite his enemies. This is the basic origin story of “Iron Man”, the comic book franchise that gave Ghostface Killah, aka Tony Starks, his first album title and likely, his last shot at a major movie role. It is also the essence of 2013’s Twelve Reasons to Die, where a linear narrative of revenge was told over live-band, time-stamped soul music with the guidance of a young and new collaborator. Does that also sound familiar? It should if you’ve heard anything about 36 Seasons; the main difference is that Adrian Younge is exchanged for Brooklyn revivalists the Revelations and that Tony Starks doesn’t actually die before he rains vengeance upon those who have wronged him.
One can see this continuous and considerable narrowing of Ghostface Killah’s artistic scope as a course correction or an apology to his hardcore fanbase; penance for the shameless bids for commercial relevance on The Big Doe Rehab and Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City. The sadder truth is that Ghostface has been in an artistic tailspin for the past seven years and, as with Twelve Reasons to Die, there seems to be a tacit acknowledgement that he can’t pull out unless someone else takes the controls.
Though still credited to Ghostface Killah, 36 Seasons is a truly collaborative work. Comic book artist Matthew Rosenberg returns to provide the storyline and Ghostface doesn’t even appear on nearly a third of the tracks, which are earmarked for character introductions and a chance for the Revelations to show their neo-soul credentials. While nowhere near as fantastical as Twelve Reasons’ supernatural storyline—Ghostface was a hired gun murdered by his employees and his remains were melted into 12 vinyl albums—36 Seasons is far more promising. In short, Tony Starks was keeping Staten Island in check just with his presence, but for reasons that aren’t quite clear, he’s exiled for nine years; that amounts to “36 seasons,” as Ghostface constantly reminds the listener throughout. He returns home and sees his girl take up with a local drug kingpin (played by Kool G Rap) and his former running buddy (voiced by AZ) joins the boys in blue. He’s determined to clean up the streets, but has to do some dirt first, which lands him back in jail after he’s double-crossed by those he trusted.
This is straight-up criminology and the potential is off the charts if you have even the slightest shred of hope that Ghost could regain his gifts for plot twists, jaw-dropping detail, and character sketches that resulted in the most vivid storytelling hip-hop has ever witnessed. But that Ghostface disappeared nearly a decade ago. As such, there was no reason to say “spoiler alert” for any of the above. For one thing, it will be mentioned in every single review of 36 Seasons, because the entire story is laid out in a four-panel comic included in the CD’s insert. All of it.
And 36 Seasons is more in line with the spirit of Ghostface’s recent output, where he’s more prolific and “for the love” than ever and somehow lazier at the same time. His lyrics barely deviate from the plot points laid in a comic book that can be read in 20 seconds, reverting to Twelve Reasons’ childlike literalism and chronology. The first line is, “Ayo, I’m back after nine years/ That’s 36 seasons/ Shit is changed up for all types of reasons” and from there on out, potentially graphic scenes are often similarly reduced to, “this happened and then this happened.”
How has shit changed and what are these reasons? We’re told that the streets are being overrun with petty thieves and drug dealers, but also that Ghostface’s exile was likely the result of a bid in the Tombs. So who are these kids? Are they like the Polo rubgy-stealing turncoat from “R.A.G.U.” or the incompetent, petty drug dealer from “Maxine”? No, on “The Dogs of War” (not to be confused with the Fishscale highlight “Dogs of War”), they’re selling drugs in a way that Ghostface merely finds unacceptable for aesthetic reasons.
When he confronts his estranged lover Bamboo (played by Kandace Springs) on “Love Don’t Live Here”, we don’t get the shocking invective of “Wildflower”, the wounded alpha wolf cry of “Never Be the Same Again”, or a combination of the two as on “Back Like That”. It literally goes nowhere; Tony Starks arrives at Bamboo’s house; she is surprised. She has moved on. He feels disrespected. He rhymes “the crib” with “the kid” twice in the same verse. It’s actually painful to hear him attempt to modulate his voice trying to muster some kind of emotion during this thing. Starks retells his betrayal (“Double Cross”), his lightbulb moment (“Pieces to the Puzzle”), and his murder plot (“Homicide”) in similarly unembellished terms and once the climactic shootout arrives, it’s presented as damn near an afterthought—”I’m filling funeral homes and graves/ It’s no surprise GFK the only one that survive.” And then he wins back Bamboo. The end.
Maybe the reference to his past work is unfair and 36 Seasons should be taken at face value. But after you hear the story once, at face value, 36 Seasons is a serviceable, New York soul-rap album that has limited replay value. The frequent absence of Ghostface might actually be the best thing going for it, as he’s consistently outdone by Kool G Rap and AZ; maybe their characters are more well-defined and maybe their relative lack of celebrity makes them more capable of merging with character. More accurately, they simply write better raps in 2014. Likewise, Pharoahe Monch appears as “Dr. X.” on “Emergency Procedure”, and spits typical tongue-twisting linguistics about the periodic table. But once it’s done, you’re still left with a track about creating a gas mask, which is otherwise useless outside the context of 36 Seasons.
Otherwise, the high points of 36 Seasons often seem unintentional—during the rising action of “The Dogs of War”, Theodore Unit lackey Shawn Wigs offers, “you know how we do, O.G. style, I’ll dress up like the pizza man,” which is hilarious because it’s Shawn Wigs. Likewise, the undercurrent of New York City police corruption somehow makes 36 Seasons uncomfortably prescient, especially when Ghostface complains of “illegal chokeholds” in a moment that feels way too hot to the touch right now. But the peak of 36 Seasons comes during the outro of “Homicide”, where Ghostface promises swift retribution and yells, “I’ll wipe my dick on your spaghetti fork!” Once you try to figure out what a spaghetti fork is and the astonishing insult of having someone do that to it, once that… evocative image fades, there’s a lingering sadness that it’s the first time you really hear Ghostface on 36 Seasons instead of the increasingly mundane Tony Starks.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1vN1uie