Album Review: Ghostface Killah Follows Up Wu-Tang Clan's Reunion Album With Solo Concept LP '36 Seasons'
After 20 years of rapping, there are few things the Wu-Tang Clan hasn't been able to do -- except get along. In 2007, ahead of the release of its fifth LP, 8 Diagrams, group members Ghostface Killah and Raekwon trashed the album publicly, blaming its poor quality on the direction of de facto leader The RZA. The project came and went, and everyone went back to their solo careers. Then in 2013, to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of its landmark debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the group attempted to reunite for a new album, but more bickering ensued and the deadline was missed. Months passed, and the project, rumored to be Wu's last as a group, appeared to be in jeopardy -- RZA even pleaded publicly for his bandmates to get onboard. But finally, the legendary Staten Island collective got down to recording A Better Tomorrow.
The resulting album is one of solidarity: Opener "Ruckus in B Minor" features all Wu members, including the late Ol' Dirty Bastard. "Rae, all those bad times is behind us/Ghost, put that mask on to remind us," rhymes RZA, and indeed, it appears that they have hugged it out. Wu hasn't sounded this hungry, aggressive and determined in years.
But while Tomorrow certainly feels like a classic Wu-Tang LP (epic kung fu skits stitch it together), it's certainly not flawless. RZA worked with songwriter-producer Adrian Younge and session musicians to make beats that sound like samples, and while the results are mostly good, some tracks -- "Preacher's Daughter" and "Ron O'Neal" -- fail to find their rhythms. The album often sounds busy, as if RZA just couldn't stop tinkering with it, so it's not surprising that the uplifting title track, a simple rearrangement of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes' "Wake Up Everybody," is also the project's best.
But, this being the Wu, even the triumph of a solid reunion album comes with glimpses of disorganization. In seemingly direct competition with Tomorrow, Ghostface is releasing a solo album, 36 Seasons, one week later. It too features live production, from Brooklyn band The Revelations, who place Ghost squarely inside a cornucopia of dusty grooves. The tightly wound concept LP plays like a mini-movie: Hero Tony Starks just came home from nine years in jail ("The Battlefield"), his girlfriend has left him ("Love Don't Live Here No More"), and he's about to get caught up in the drug game once more ("Here I Go Again"). Bit parts of Starks' Donald Goines-like street opera are superbly played by rap legends A.Z., Kool G. Rap and Pharoahe Monch, and while it's not the Clan in full, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better supporting cast. If Tomorrow is, in fact, the group's swan song, 36 Seasons proves that Wu's members can do just fine -- and maybe even better -- on their own.
This article first appeared in the Dec. 13 issue of Billboard.