After two decades scribbling words and searching for sounds, veteran artists are inevitably backed into one of two corners. You can update your classic template to prevailing trends, which usually results in disaster unless you’ve mastered the art of the swag dracula (Jay Z) or the art of the absurd (a la Snoop Dogg). Option B is digging in your heels and refining what originally shaped you. This leads to less embarrassment, but often diminishing returns. By album three, the thrill is almost always gone. But with right production, just enough experimentation, and storytelling skills, you can make it work.
I don’t need to reiterate the narrative of Souls of Mischief because I spent about a week of my life doing it last year. In some form or fashion, the Hieroglyphcs flagbearers have been trying to distill the magic of ’93 since they first explained the idea of infinity as teenagers. Their latest project, There is Only Now, essentially inverts the original concept. What if the promise of infinity was cut short the following year. The events revolve around a parking lot stick-up in ’94, where Hiero was forced to their stomachs while a ski-masked gunman waved a pistol and fired a bullet that narrowly missed Domino. Inspired by a conversation with the project’s producer, Adrian Younge, the album uses the incident and a fictionalized kidnapping of Tajai as grist for a narrative rap record.
Younge’s described the sonic inspiration as Native Tongues meets Souls of Mischief meets Herbie Hancock and Bob James. Some will inevitably hate this on the principle that all music should be progressive. It’s a valid critique, but this isn’t retro fetishism from teenagers melancholy for an imagined Golden Age. This is the work of veteran artists seeking to re-discover original inspiration and a producer determined to expand the sound that once suited them best. There’s something about “Panic Struck” that recalls Bob James’ “Taxi Theme,” which supplied the loop for one of their most well-known and most-bootlegged singles. It’s a laid-back jazzy lilt that enhances the infinite 93 that’s being channeled.
You can spend all day trying to articulate what’s right or what’s wrong about this song, but that’s counter-clockwise to what I take from it. It’s not about the beat or the sample or the raps, all of which are good. This isn’t necessarily about a sound, but about the chemistry it ignites within the group. Souls have spent their whole career having every project compared to their debut. This won’t change anything, but “Panic Struck” should satisfy those down since day one. Time is a flat circle with three eyes in the middle.