Aging in hip-hop is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do, but following up a classic debut is even harder. Try and repeat the success and you’ll inevitably fall short. Go the other way and do something unexpected and fans will bemoan the changes. There isn’t a more crystalizing debut than the Oakland rap group Souls Of Mischief’s debut single, “’93 Til Infinity.” One of the most iconic songs in all of rap, the song’s success has dwarfed the group’s entire career; even its title leaves no room for growth. Twenty years later, the Hieroglyphics crew members have teamed up with producer auteur Adrian Younge for their sixth album, There Is Only Now, in an attempt to grapple with the weight of their debut musically and historically.
There Is Only Now is a hip-hopera, based on a true story from the Souls’ own experiences in the early ’90s. The tale unfolds after a failed attack on the rappers sparks them to get revenge on their assassins. It’s a pretty dense story with a lot of twists and to their credit the group didn’t do it halfway. The first song “Time Stopped” immediately set the scene as an idyllic day spent hollering at girls and kicking it with the crew turns tragic as a black truck emerges and shoots at the group, even taking one of the members. The next song adds perspective as Busta Rhymes (in maybe his best spot of the year) stars as the antagonist in “Womack’s Lament” before “Panic Struck” finds the rappers regrouping and processing the attack. It’s visceral rap storytelling. Unfortunately after that strong start, the story starts getting in its own way more than actually helping the album.
As impressive as the concept is, it hinders the true strength of the group: uninhibited, dexterous rapping. The four rappers of SoM—A-Plus, Phesto, Opio, and Tajai—shine with the pedigree of their Hieroglyphics alma mater. Trading their youthful ebullience for mature precision, they haven’t lost a step in 20 years. They trade verses back and forth with startling energy, dueling each other with creative flows and off kilter tempos. It’s a camaraderie that’s not really a part of today’s rap scene and frankly a breath of fresh air.
The real mvp of this album though is Adrian Younge. The Black Dynamite composer understands the delicate balance between inspiration and imitation and knows how to use his musical influences. Though his hip-hop debut with Ghostface Killah was a little undercooked (editor’s note: that depends on who you ask), he’s figured out the formula with There Is Only Now. Mining the late ’60s/early ’70s jazz breaks and horn loops that were all over the Souls’ debut album, Younge has created a frenetic canvas that colors the whole work. The live instrumentation moves with the rappers, changing mood and feeding off their energy. This backdrop allows the Souls Of Mischief to return to the sounds of their youth without sounding like old men; the music has grown up with the MCs.
Souls Of Mischief would always be a permanent fixture in Bay Area rap tropes, but hip-hop moves quickly and they were at risk of becoming a Jeopardy answer. There Is Only Now puts their legacy squarely into their own hands and should leave fans anxious for their next work. Hopefully with their demons and debuts fully behind them, they can just focus on making great music rather than complex statements.