It’s a bit ironic that an LP entitled There Is Only Now is set in the past. It’s even more ironic that the group whose break out debut was entitled 93 ‘Til Infinity made that LP and is now operating within the finite constructs of time. Time has always been a concept the mighty Souls of Mischief crew was fond of, but over the years they’ve gotten lost in it, shuffling around trying to figure out where they fit into rap’s modern landscape. The group is packed with savvy rap veterans that share a rare unified vision, and though 2009’s Montezuma’s Revenge was an under-appreciated gem lined with sublime Prince Paul production, it didn’t quite see that vision through. 93 'Til Infinity had a sonic sharpness that has not since been replicated by the boys from East Oakland. On There Is Only Now, a concept album that explores just how precious time is, knotty, elaborate rhyme structuring meets fully fleshed-out storytelling to create a masterful epic.

There Is Only Now is produced entirely by multi-instrumentalist and hip-hop maestro Adrian Younge, and his funky, brooding beats set the stage for this production. He provides setting and context where it is required. The rest is filled in by the rap quartet in layers, often with overlapping perspective. There is a cohesiveness to the plot that is gripping, and it never lags.

When kicked into high gear, There Is Only Now is almost cinematic. This is traditional rap at its finest with a sound contemporary enough not to feel dated. The underlying chemistry between Younge and the Souls of Mischief crew is present throughout with no hitches; the transitions occur seamlessly like scene changes. The narrative moves along at such a fast pace that the only reprieve from the action is on skits narrated by Ali Shaheed Muhammad. “Time Stopped” is the epicenter from which the rest of the plot points spread, and it replicates the events that precede and follow a drive by. The hook serves as a segue into the precise moment of the actual incident: “They rolled past, they backed up/They jumped out the black truck/The black man and black gat/We froze up and that fast my life flashed before me, time stopped…” It is like a crime drama unfolding in real-time.

With There Is Only Now, Souls of Mischief turn out a prize just short of a solid masterpiece. It tremors along steadily, churning out consistently good but not great mini narratives, and it does so with flair but with little change of pace. Still, it is the realization of an ambitious idea seen through to its conclusion, and it is an exceptional attempt to push rap to its limits as a medium. “Meet Womack” finds the group rapping with technical precision over a fluid bass riff. “Miriam Got A Mickey” simulates one’s stream-of-consciousness after being slipped a drug. The group meshes effortlessly schematically in every moment. The lead single, “Finally Back,” fits the story well as an intense discussion of retribution, but it works even better symbolically. Souls of Mischief have offered up an LP that will withstand the test of time. If there is only now, then it’s good to have the Souls of Mischief crew back, even for if only for this moment. Finally back, indeed.—Sheldon Pearce