Ghostface Killah is back after 36 seasons. That translates roughly to nine years, he tells us on the album’s opening track “The Battlefield.” Staten Island has changed quite a bit since he left. Now the “cops stay screwin’” and his name’s “faded out like some damn old socks.” Kids smoke weed in the schoolyard. No one’s afraid to breach enemy territory. Bottom line, Ghostface says: there’s no respect.
Tommy Boy Records
All of these feelings and reflections converge with the track’s melancholic hook: “Been on the battlefield for a long, long time / I can see life closing in on this old body of mine.” Stop and think for a minute. When was the last time you heard Ghostface Killah cop to any kind of resignation? Defeat? Transient meditation? The soulful, embittered voice of Tre Williams delivers those words, which get pinched between two somewhat antagonistic and typically aggressive verses. It’s a pretty clever production technique. Stuff antithetical emotion into the hook, then stuff the hook in between two opposite messages. The result here with 36 Seasons is a kind of sad and reminiscent survey of what Ghostface has lost in his home town in Staten Island, only it’s too out-of-character to hold up for the duration of the album.
At 44, Ghostface Killah is one of the older rappers in the industry, and he’s acutely aware of his seniority. But with 36 Seasons, he’s not asking listeners to ignore that fact, nor is he trying to usher them back toward the Supreme Clientele era and say, “this is where I want you to stay.” Instead, he’s asking listeners to and accept his age with him. By no means is it a comfortable process; sometimes the album feels a bit overdone, a bit clichéd. But then think about the first line of “The Battlefield” and let it frame the rest of the album. Nine years puts Ghostface at the inception of Fischscale, his most successful and acclaimed album of the last 14 years, and now, with 36 Seasons, he’s back. He considers this album to be a revival of sorts, a reflective statement at the end of a long odyssey — a return to form.
This return is particularly hard to swallow, though, since 36 Seasons doesn’t sound or feel like a grand statement. Ghostface addresses love, loyalty, friendship and change through the vein of soul, and these slow beats and drawn-out horn sections serve only to conjure some feeling of nostalgia. For example, on “Love Don’t Live Here No More,” he raps about coming home to his girl after nine long years away. She claims she thought he was dead and tells him that she’s moved on, she’s got a new man who can take care of her kid. “So I turned my head down and walked away from the crib,” Ghostface raps at the end of the verse, followed by a stark silence that’s actually shocking. This is the same guy who says he’s sold more drugs and witnessed more homicides than he could rap about in a career, and yet, when it comes to family, he knows when to walk away and let the non-music speak for him.
Unfortunately, that’s not the whole story. Later in the song, Ghostface’s newfound wisdom is checked as he rattles off a few lines of misogynistic talk-behind-the-back. “I never did a damn thing to deserve it / This is a man’s world, I go away come home lookin’ for you / Now you fuckin’ up the plans, girl,” he raps with the same snarl that he’d supposedly outgrown. If the album is to be about change and the depth of its effect, then a verse like this can put a halt on the emotional momentum. And it does.
36 Seasons reveals that Ghostface hasn’t lost a beat in the way of his storytelling or his gusto, but the latter might not be a good thing. There are plenty of heartfelt and sincere moments here; the problem is that they’re too frequently negated by instances of unrequited anger and unfairness. And while the album is filled with the sound of soul and retro East coast rap styling, it all feels like a kind of conjuring trick in the end. That after nine years of learning, music-making and growing up, Ghostface Killah still relies on the tricks and traps of the rapper who rests in peace with Fishscale.