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Genre-smashing sophomore album sets hip-hop's iLLPHONiCS apart

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iLLPHONiCS' "iLLPHONiCS" album

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To pin one genre to iLLPHONiCS' lapel is near impossible. It's hip-hop at its core, wrapped up in jazz and soul, peppered with rock, electronic, and classical standards with a dash of pop and dance for flavor. The cover art for iLLPHONiCS' album is scary accurate: it's a hodgepodge of instruments and genres that defy explanation. Every song is a story, every verse a killer hook worth quoting, and their lead vocalist emcees throughout iLLPHONiCS' latest album with an undeniable cocky attitude that he owns with each of his self-written lines.

Everything about iLLPHONiCS oozes cool and Saint Louis. Even the names of the band members are cool - their emcee is Fallout Morris and everyone has nicknames like Blacklion and Spank. The album cover should be available as a print to hang on a lucky fan's living room wall.

Several songs will resonate particularly with Saint Louis natives who have walked the same streets as the band and recognize their sly references, with "Mound City March" an obvious anthem to the city that made them. Every track on iLLPHONiCS' newest is tightly produced and jammed with energy that runs from beginning to end.

With "The Pinnacle", iLLPHONiCS blasts into your ears with a deserved swagger, backed up by some amazing instruments and the beautiful vocals of singer/songwriter Tiffany Elle, whose strong voice instantly makes any track a must listen. With its first track, iLLPHONiCS starts at the top and never budges, proving over and over why they were voted best hip-hop group of 2011 by Saint Louis' top alternative publication, the Riverfront Times.

Morris' verses are complex, playful rhymes that treat language like an amusement park made for his personal satisfaction, and it's hard not to smile and nod along with some of his more explosively fun lines.

With Valentine's Day thundering closer and closer, some of these tracks seem apropos for the holiday, with "Your Body" a swinging call out to the beautiful women worth spending the night with and "If Looks Could Kill" giving said beauty a hard seductive edge that can't be resisted despite the danger. Working in antithesis are tracks such as "Love's a Bitch", in which Love itself attempts to explain its own bad reputation as a destroyer of lives, made obvious by the track title.

"This Morning", "Mount City March", and "The Ballad of Studley Grooveright" are very Saint Louis in their lyrics, albeit for very different reasons. The first is a lament for those killed in the violence that overtakes Saint Louis city every night, an unfortunate reality of a city often voted the most dangerous in the country.

Countering that imagery is "Mount City March", a jamming danceable history lesson/theme song for the Gateway to the West that has endless call outs for many of the city's highest STL-born stars. "Ballad" is a song about a fictional traveling musician who sounds like he could easily be found any day walking through downtown with his guitar on his back, looking for the next storefront to make his stage.

There is an edge of irony to the fact that "Digital Age", the album's anti-tech anthem, is followed by "Sundown", which features heavily the musical styling of Glitch Factor, which is electronic in the same vein as Daft Punk. In fact, it would be a shame if someone didn't mash-up "Digital Age" with a Daft Punk track for a perfect moment in musical cognitive dissonance. Still, the tracks work well in each other in a tag team of styles, momentarily trading off the album's jazz vibe for something more industrial.

With tracks like "Wherever You Wanna Go", "In Vino Veritas" and "Your Eyes", iLLPHONiCS' album ends on a slower note than it started, although it never loses its lyrical intensity or thrumming background energies. If anything, they only further showcase Kevin Koehler on guitar and Simon Chervitz on bass.

The second half of the album also brings up the bulk of the featured artists, highlighting the local talents of Gotham Green and Syna So Pro and Tiffany Elle. "In Vito Veritas", a highlight of this album for its lyrics, is one of the best tracks to show off the vocals from the rest of iLLPHONiCS that aren't emcee Morris.

Side note: seriously, can we get Tiffany Elle a solo record already? I know she's working on one, but I'm very impatient to hear her vocals shine through as a solo. And yes, I see she has a two track EP out already!

On their Twitter page, iLLPHONiCS call themselves the inventors of 'hip hop fusion'. With their sophomore self-titled album, they're openly defying anyone to question their claim to such a heady musical first. If you needed proof that hip hop in Saint Louis hasn't died, iLLPHONiCS has given you all the proof one can ever need.

iLLPHONiCS' self-titled album can be purchased at their website, iTunes, Amazon, and Vintage Vinyl. It is currently streaming on Spotify. You can also listen to certain tracks on the group's SoundCloud page.

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