Souleye – Shapeshifting
Since his 2005 debut, Souleye has established and solidified a reputation as one of rap music’s true lyrical visionaries. Genre conventions mean nothing to him. His latest release, Shapeshifting, is neither a bust-out moment nor a reaffirmation of his skills. Instead, the album plays like a legacy being formed, an offering from an artist moving beyond the mere borders of respect and renown into more rarefied air. These are songs of genuine vision, not just pop confections designed for mass consumption. The lyrical content is never anything less than intimate, personal, but Souleye goes a step further. Each track has a compelling musical framework utilizing the full battery of sounds at his disposal. Nothing is employed arbitrarily – there is a mighty cohesiveness to this album, a sense of statement that resolves itself splendidly.
“Human Overwhelm” opens the album with such convincing openness and clarity of message that it might serve as a perfect introduction for any Souleye novices. The heart of his personal message is here, as it is elsewhere – an essentially humanist belief that preaches positivity without ever sentimentalizing or downgrading individual struggles. Each person’s humanity is sacred, but vulnerable. He constructs a perfect musical vehicle for the lyric, brimming over with invention and energy, and the production hits on an ideal balance between vocal and backing track. “Labeled” will resonate with anyone who’s felt the sting of judgment and will land hard thanks to its slinky tempo and careful weaving of various sonic elements. “Rage Free” has a light funk bounce and another natural, slowly unfolding vocal line that lives between the rhythmic margins to outstanding effect. The inventive rhymes defining much of Souleye’s writing are abundant here. “Starting Point” expands on that light funk edge and delivers hard-hitting beats over a swaggering Souleye vocal.
“Our Flight” is more laid back and awash in post-production effects that give it a slightly dreamy air. The feeling persists when the track kicks off in earnest, but added instrumentation brings the song Souleye’s usual urgency. “Word Won” is musically a little moodier than many of the other songs, but the dense backing track doesn’t clash with another thoughtful and intelligent Souleye lyric. Instead, the deliberate tempo and thick bank of electronic sound gives more weight to the track than it might otherwise possess. The album’s penultimate song, “The Victim”, is perhaps one of the best on the release. The percolating keyboard introduction slides into another slinky beat punctuated by a half-whispered Souleye vocal. It’s often double-tracked to superb effect. There’s an interesting sample synthesizer line in the song that older listeners might recognize. The album’s final song, “The Archer”, opens with a minor-key keyboard melody before understated percussion enters. This is a deeply contemplative finale that brings Shapeshifting to a gentle close.
Souleye raises the bar with his latest album. It’s an impressive feat considering the acclaim he’s received since his debut a decade ago, but instead of contenting himself with producing variations on a theme, he’s challenged himself to write better songs, delve deeper than before, and go where any potential imitators cannot follow. He succeeds here with a resounding exclamation point.
9 out of 10 stars.