The first two Souls of Mischief albums made nary a commercial ripple at the times of their release (though the debut, '93 Til Infinity, has since been given its due acclaim in cult circles). So on their third collection, Focus, Souls have gone the self-release route, peddling their cassette-only music via the Hieroglyphics website, which ensures two things: that the band will move modest numbers of the cassette and that those who buy it will be hardcore, loyal fans. Souls seem, at this point in their career, uninterested in, or at least unconcerned with, expanding their fan base. They are satisfied with making music for the heads that they know will appreciate it. That, in many cases, can make for cloistered, self-interested art, something that you have to be inside in order to value and enjoy. Souls of Mischief, however, bend backwards to avoid that dangerous knife edge as if to confirm the characteristic that has always been a primary element of the Hieroglyphics crew: pure syntactical skill and interplay. The expressive joy of old shines through on a couple cuts, but by-and-large, Focus is an exercise in bluntness and, well, focus. Unlike prior releases, the album mostly avoids good-time anthems (other than the out-of-place "Step Off") for piercing commentary. Millennial-like noir ("Way 2 Cold," "Make Way") co-exists with more trenchant analyses with Souls directing their lyrical scalpel mainly at the music business ("Pay Due") and fly-by-night MCs ("Shooting Stars"). Uncharacteristically, however, Souls of Mischief have bypassed the inventive, left-field samples, viscous basslines, and jaunty beats of their early songs for a more brittle and paranoid production that seems to draw mostly from East Coast underground hip-hop, specifically RZA's work, and the results are much gloomier and stifling. Granted, they overshadow nearly every group working similar musical ground, and they are still virtually peerless in terms of lyrical ability alone (at one point in "Big Shit" "effervescent" is rhymed with "epileptic"), but it is a slight disappointment and certainly perplexing to hear Souls inching back down towards the status quo rather than making others elevate their game just to approach the Hiero stable.