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El Michels Affair - Enter the 37th Chamber

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Artist: El Michels Affair

Album: Enter the 37th Chamber

Label: Truth & Soul

Review date: Sep. 25, 2009

“Retro” ain’t the half of it. Maybe the meticulous, melancholy funk of Enter the 37th Chamber could have soundtracked some morally ambiguous ’70s cop show… if those soundtracks had been half this good. As it stands, this thing is complex and mesmerizing enough to serve whatever function it will.

The tracks are derived from the hard-hitting, hypnotic loops created by the RZA, one of the most distinctive, imaginative producers in hip hop and the aural architect behind the Wu-Tang Clan, under all kinds of umbrellae. El Michels Affair has collaborated with RZA on a number of occasions, but credibility isn’t an issue here anyroad – the Brooklyn quartet audibly gets the art, math and science behind the Wu’s bluster, and presents it in a fresh context without compromising anything. They’ve created a jazz/funk standout in its own right, and a hip-hop-nerd curio that can stand beside The Art of War on any Wu-Tang fan’s Christmas list.

And they do the job sans outward irreverence. The liberally scattered kung-fu-punchout samples remind us what it “is” that we’re listening to, but EMA is ever unafraid to mine hidden subtexts at the expense of a = a mimesis. Without the brain-bending raps, we’re free to luxuriate in the claustrophobic weirdness of RZA’s imagination and find whatever we’re looking for. Much like Madlib’s awesomely awkward play-date with Stevie Wonder, Enter the 37th Chamber is less of a straight tribute and more of what would happen if you shuffled your Wu-Tang library, fell asleep, had some fucked-up dreams, and woke up trying to make sense of them.

As always, it’s the variety that keeps things interesting. Just as the brainwashing noir of a radically shortcut “Mystery of Chessboxin’” peters out, we’re into the front-porch conviviality of “Can It All Be So Simple.”

If you’ve ever loved the Wu, or OST soul, or living in the city, I recommend this to you.

By Emerson Dameron

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