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One thing is certain about Souls of Mischief, the razor- sharp quartet at the center of Oakland's Hieroglyphics crew (which includes Del the Funky Homosapien, Extra Prolific, and Casual): These people live and die for hip-hop. But the question on No Man's Land, the follow-up to an excellent debut, 93 'Til Infinity"span", is whether Souls of Mischief have sold their mischievous souls to the devil for a crack at a larger piece of the rap pie. Though they've long been favorites of rap purists, multiplatinum status has eluded the group for any number of reasons--sadly among them the antigangster, college-level rhymes of members A-Plus, Opio, Phesto, and Tajai. A quick listen to No Man's Land's tougher stance and gunshot sound effects, however, would cause anyone to guess the Hiero crew had compromised their just peace for a little chart action.
"span" A closer inspection of the new album, though, will put at ease those who see Souls of Mischief as defenders of an unadulterated, showmanlike rhyme tradition. Even the group's slightly hardened attitude can't nullify the fact that Souls of Mischief's brand of old school hip-hop formalism resides far outside current rap fashions. In the face of today's smooth Ramp;B flavors, No Man's Land comes without a single melodic hook. Tracks like "Rock It Like That" and "Ya Don't Stop" are as retro as their titles imply: Beats and spare jazz loops serve as shells for the raw exchanges of the verse and intricate interplay of the chorus. Even more than on their debut, Souls of Mischief focus less on what they're saying than on how they say it--the lyrics, therefore, are liable to be branded superficial. Ask the four Souls, though, and they'll tell you to leave the message to the preachers--in rap, it's all about the flow. --Roni Sarig