When I was getting into hip hop, many years ago, I tended to avoid “mainstream” hip hop, thinking I would get more credit if I explored underground artists. I assumed that the more popular hip hop acts were for people to tell other people that they listened to hip hop without actually being a fan of the genre. These are, of course, very petty reasons to not listen to an artist, and many of the popular ones exhibit a large influence on the genre today. I bring this up because iLLPHONiCS, a hip hop collective from St. Louis, MO, proudly wear their influence on their sleeves on this new album, while bringing a very organic and uniquely signature sound. They listened to and admired to many of the biggest names in hip hop throughout the years, and they reference these artists, by name or by sound, while putting a rhythmic, soulful twist to their creations.
So, what exactly do iLLPHONiCS sound like? On an emceeing basis, Larry Morris has a great flow which works well with the jazzy, jam-based music. It’s easy listening, quite loungey, but it vibes well with the rapping. The hook on most of the songs on this album are infectious in an almost pop kind of way. But the aspect I like most about this album would be the instrumentals. Illphonics do a wonderful job at making laid back instrumentals that don’t overshadow the vocals.
The album begins with a field recording of a customer purchasing the new album at a vinyl shop, which segues into “Everything (Jammin’ For You).” Larry’s flow is confidently delivered (“OJ’s hand from the crime scene”) and Chaz’s steady drumming, combined with Simon’s bass playing and Kevin’s smooth guitar, elevates the song. Keith’s keyboard brings a fun vibe that flows throughout the album, and as a unit they form the “base” sound of the band and it works.
All of the songs have strong grooves that don’t let go. On “She,” Larry raps “for you, I would do anything” as the band lifts the melody. And on “96 to 99” he references Tupac, Busta Rhymes, Common, Outkast- “96 to 99, I still remember the days I fell in love with hip hop”– bringing in waves of nostalgia. “Take You High”has a smart synthesizer introduction which sets the ambiance right away- “Hey love, what you doin’ tonight? Let’s see the town, let’s see the sights…past the stars in the sky. Crimson in your eyes.”
“The Brown Frequency” is a song with very strong social messages; a sense of urgency and anger permeates throughout. “Why am I the threat?” “I’m asking you not to shoot.” “What do you do. When you’re sick and tired of abused?” “Fight Back.” “But it really doesn’t matter when your color is black.” It’s important, and I admire them for including it in the album as it can be tricky to pull it off, and it’s also what I would like to see them do more of.
If there is a criticism with this album, it’s that many of the songs play it a little safe. A lot of the songs flow into one another very well, but for some it can be monotonous. The rapping can be flexed a little bit more, and they could be a bit more adventurous by avoiding consistency (albeit it’s a consistency that works well). When they do break out of the shell, it’s quite enjoyable-I liked “Sweet Missouri” because it was buoyed by Kevin’s distorted guitars, and the high pitched vocals reminded me of Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Under the Bridge.” This may not be a great reason to enjoy a song but it IS personal preference, after all.
I was pleasantly surprised at how accessible the album was, but at the same time it wasn’t exactly hip hop catered to people that didn’t listen to the genre. Yes, there are numerous moments where the song has a catchy hook (and I am not ashamed to admit that I enjoyed these tracks). However, the hip hop melding so well with the instrumentals is what really made me enjoy it. These guys are pretty unique in that they’ve managed to strike a good balance between rap and jazz. With most groups that attempt this style they tend to overwhelmingly favor one genre over the other. Give it a listen.