iLLPHONiCS – “Gone With The Trends” Album Review

Let me say up front that I was not previously familiar with the St. Louis hip hop fusion band iLLPHONiCS, despite having lived in that city from 1995 to 2011. With that in mind, I was blown away the instant I listened to their new album “Gone With The Trends,” the fifth released by iLLPHONiCS in the past 10 years. This band is amazing! Their highly infectious music incorporates elements of hip hop, R&B, soul, pop, jazz and funk, with lush, stylish instrumentals and harmonic choruses that call to mind Earth, Wind & Fire and Kool & the Gang. That explains why I like them so much.

Band members include lead singer/emcee Larry Morris, Keith Moore (keyboards), Kevin Koehler (lead guitar), Simon Chervitz (bass), Chaz Brew (drums) and Lena Charlie (vocals). In an interview with Tracy Heck for the website AXS, Morris explained that the album title was conceived in response to society’s preoccupation with today’s social media trends, “with everything trending and short attention spans and no longevity.” He added that what distinguishes iLLPHONiCS from other bands who have come and gone is their ability to stay true to themselves. “This album was us saying to the world that we’re going to continue to go against the trends” and “keep being consistent in the way we know how. We’re taking it back to a time where playing musical instruments was the thing. This is hip-hop before the sampler and the drum machine. It’s going back to when funk was really at its height and hip-hop was starting to come alive.”

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“Gone With The Trends” skillfully employs transitional interludes to connect some of the songs in a manner similar to the groundbreaking album Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. The opening track is a recording of a man buying the album at Vintage Vinyl, the landmark record store in University City, a St. Louis suburb which happens to be the home town of iLLPHONiCS. (I personally spent many hours perusing the store’s extensive collection of vinyl and CD recordings of every conceivable genre of music.)  When he unwraps the CD and places it into his car CD player, the first song “Everything (Jammin’ For You)” begins.

This awesome, upbeat jazzy track introduces the band as if performing at a sophisticated nightclub. It features Morris as emcee and Lena Charlie on vocals, with gorgeous, soaring horns played by DJ Nune aka Lamar Harris. The song’s arrangement is perfection, with beautiful, tinkling piano, gentle percussion and smooth guitar.  It ends with a phone call interlude, then immediately segues into the funky, guitar-infused hip hop track “She,” which channels Kool & the Gang in style, arrangement and the harmonizing chorus. These two are my favorite songs on the album.

The first single released from the album is “What D’Ya Like,” an energetic, funked-up and incredibly catchy hip hop track that also features the smooth, sultry vocals of Lena Charlie.

The song “96 to 99” is an ode to the early days of hip hop and the strong influence it had on the band members. “Hip hop, man, just where do I start? At 11 years of age, you infiltrated my heart. I knew my career path, I had to be an emcee.”  The song’s jazzy textures, funky basslines and rippling horns of DJ Nune aka Lamar Harris, not to mention the smooth vocals of Lena Charlie, make it one of the standouts on the album.

The R&B infused “Take You High” opens with smooth synthesized chords, and features the incredible harmonic vocals that are iLLPHONiCS’ hallmark. Lena Charlie vocalizes on the bluesy “Han Purple,” and the band amps up the beat on “Liquid Spaceships,” a great, lively track with delightfully funky guitar riffs and rapid-fire rapping.

“Sweet Missouri” – pronounced “misery” – is a dramatic, somewhat unsettling song about the struggles of being a middle child. It has a hard rock vibe with crushing hip hop beats, distorted guitar and a barrage of rapping and Kristeen Young’s eerie, high-pitched vocals.

The most provocative tracks on the album are “8/9/14” and “The Brown Frequency.”  “8/9/14” is an audio compilation of news reports on the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, used with great dramatic effect to introduce “The Brown Frequency.” The song is a protest anthem that addresses the recent spate of police shootings of unarmed Black men, and the Black Lives Matter movement that grew from years of grievances. The song’s refrain “What do you do when you’re sick and tired of bein’ abused? Fight back!” is an emotionally charged call to action.

The album closes with the title song “Gone With The Trends,” a bluesy hip hop tune that addresses the subject of the album itself – “People going crazy trying to keep up with their friends, everybody, everybody goin’ with the trends.”

This is a great, solid album, especially for those who prefer their hip hop fused with R&B, funk, jazz and rock. Show The iLLPHONiCS some love by following them on  Twitter,  Facebook, and Instagram.  Subscribe to their YouTube channel, and stream their music on Spotify and Soundcloud. Purchase it on Bandcamp,  iTunes and other sites offering music for purchase.

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