Following the 2009 release of Enter the 37th Chamber, El Michels Affair's first Wu-centric album, the calendar of bandleader Leon Michels remained filled. A small fraction of Michels' activity included continued work with Menahan Street Band and the Expressions, whole-album productions for Aloe Blacc and Chicano Batman, and session gigs with Dr. John and Lana Del Rey.
Additionally, he co-founded a second label, Big Crown (the first was Truth & Soul), home to Lady Wray's Queen Alone (another one of his productions), and this sequel to EMA's 2009 LP, inevitably titled Return to the 37th Chamber.
Including all four sides of singles released in 2016 and early 2017, it goes a little deeper and farther out than Enter the 37th Chamber. Michels, Nick Movshon, and Thomas Brenneck perform the majority of the music, supported with a familiar extended cast of associates on one or two cuts each, while Wray, Lee Fields, and the Shacks' Shannon Wise add occasional cross-generational vocals to the predominantly instrumental set.
As with the earlier volume, the inspiration here is the RZA, specifically the rugged yet elegant material that formed the foundation of Wu-Tang Clan's 1993 debut and the first wave of solo albums that followed it, including those from Ol' Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, and GZA. The late-'60s/early-'70s soul that RZA sampled -- the Hi and Stax labels were frequent sources -- is still in Michels and company's wheelhouse, and they're as inspired as ever by the soul and reggae session crews of Memphis, Detroit, and Kingston.
Even when EMA's efforts don't match the beauty of the source material or the brawn of RZA's beats, the level of commitment and imagination is undeniable. Deepest of all is the hard-hitting "Shaolin Brew," based on the track RZA cooked up for Wu-Tang's mid-'90s malt liquor ad (as seen on television and heard in the background of the intro to Raekwon's "Spot Rusherz," but never released properly).