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Wu-Tang's Fabulous Fabulist Returns

Ghostface Killah's new album, 36 Seasons, sees the rapper revive his Tony Starks alter ego. (Courtesy of the artist)

Twenty years ago, it wasn't obvious that Ghostface Killah would become the Wu-Tang Clan's standard-bearer. The GZA bore more gravitas; Method Man had the more seductive voice. And Ol' Dirty Bastard? Well, he was the Ol' Dirty Bastard. But as the various members drifted toward their solo careers, Ghostface ascended to the front of the pack. Now, as then, he remains a fabulous fabulist, able to lyrically dramatize dense and kinetic action scenes.

On his new album, 36 Seasons, Ghostface ostensibly returns to an alter ego we haven't heard in nine years, or 36 seasons. Tony Starks takes his name from the Iron Man comic, but here, Starks is neither millionaire playboy nor metal-suit superhero. Instead he's a prodigal gangster, having returned home only to be betrayed and left for dead. Each song represents a different moment in that storyline. Ghostface invites a host of friends to play different characters, including seasoned Brooklyn rapper AZ, who is cast as the primary friend turned foe.

Some fans complain that Ghostface surrounds himself with too many guests these days, and 36 Seasons does little to dent that criticism. If this were a movie, he wouldn't appear in a quarter of the scenes. The album's most consistent presence is actually that of the band, The Revelations. Basically Wu-Tang's in-house group, the musicians suffuse the album with the warmth of '70s soul.

Ultimately though, you listen to a Ghostface album because you want to listen to Ghostface, especially when he's at his explosive, audacious best.

36 Seasons highlights the rapper's willingness to throw sideways darts at the board to see what sticks. After 18 years and more than a dozen albums, Ghostface has become akin to the classic action directors he pays homage to in his music. The overall catalog has its hits and misses, but Ghostface still manages to keep audiences enthralled through his violently vibrant imagination, no matter what the season.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The rap group Wu-Tang Clan is having a moment. The full clan released an album last week. And today, one of its most prolific members released his own album. Ghostface Killah's latest is "36 Seasons." It tells an extended story populated by characters inspired by 1970s pulp novels and blaxploitation films. Reviewer Oliver Wang says it's the latest reminder that Ghostface is one of the clan's best.

OLIVER WANG, BYLINE: Twenty years ago, it wasn't obvious that Ghostface Killah would become the Wu-Tang Clan's standard-bearer. The GZA bore more gravitas, Method Man had the more seductive voice and Ol' Dirty Bastard - well, he was the old, dirty bastard. But as the various members drifted towards their solo careers, Ghostface ascended to the front of the pack. Now, as then, he remains a fabulous fabulist, able to lyrically dramatize dense and kinetic action scenes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMERGENCY PROCEDURE")

GHOSTFACE KILLAH: (Rapping) Doctor X enter the crib, worked on the kid, created a mask that allowed me to breathe, but couldn't extract the chemicals from my body, poisonous lethal doses, comatosis, in and out of conscious, drugs are ferocious. The mass release the gas that simmer the soul, so my adrenaline stays level, not out of control. I been contaminated, physically awkward. Got wrong for doing right, my attitude salted. I'm bitter. I clean up the community. [Bleep] these New York City cops. I don't need the 'mmunity.

WANG: On "36 Seasons," Ghostface ostensibly returns to an alter ego we haven't heard in nine years or 36 seasons. Tony Starks takes his name from the Iron Man comic, but here Starks is neither millionaire playboy nor metal suit superhero. Instead, he's a prodigal gangster, having returned home only to be betrayed and left for dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMERGENCY PROCEDURE")

GHOSTFACE KILLAH: (Rapping) Exquisite doctor, his work of art created a gas mask to save Tony Starks.

WANG: Each song represents a different moment in that storyline and Ghost invites a host of friends to play different characters, including seasoned Brooklyn rapper AZ, who was cast as the primary friend turned foe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOUBLE CROSS")

AZ: (Rapping) What it do? It's bigger than the boys in blue, beyond definition what this falls into. M's in my optic, no ends to the profits, judges, prosecutors, politicians in my pocket. Hostage, high life, living on the edge, toxic in hindsight, see me when I'm dead.

WANG: Some fans complained that Ghostface surrounds himself with too many guests these days and "36 Seasons" does little to dent that criticism. If this were a movie, he wouldn't appear in a quarter of the scenes. The album's most consistent presence is actually that of the band The Revelations. Basically Wu-Tang's in-house group, the musicians suffuse the album with the warmth of '70s soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE YOU FOR ALL SEASONS")

WANG: Ultimately, though, you listen to a Ghostface album because you want to listen to Ghostface, especially when he's at his explosive, audacious best.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOOD ON THE STREETS")

GHOSTFACE KILLAH: (Rapping) Gas mask down. It's revenge mode. I gotta level my levels so I don't explode. I gotta stay focused, put on the killah face, figure how to get 'em all in the same place. Plot thickens, it's all about the strategies. I look down in my bag and see a stack of cheese. Start making calls, buying artillery...

WANG: "36 Seasons" highlights the rapper's willingness to throw sideways darts at the board to see what sticks. After 18 years and over a dozen albums, Ghostface has become akin to the classic action directors he pays homage to in his music. The overall catalog has its hits and misses, but Ghostface still manages to keep audiences enthralled through his violently vibrant imagination, no matter what the season.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE DON'T LIVE HERE NO MORE")

GHOSTFACE KILLAH: (Rapping) Feeling fresh walkin' down the block.

SIEGEL: The new album from Ghostface Killah is "36 Seasons." Reviewer Oliver Wang is an associate professor of sociology at Cal. State Long Beach, and he writes the audioblog Soul-Sides. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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