BY MATTHEW HENGEVELD As a huge hip-hopper, I know Bilal best from his guest MC appearances on other people’s albums. Perhaps his most proflic guest appearance was on the Jigga man’s American Gangster, on the track “Fallin’.” He has been a frequent guest on Common’s albums, during J Dilla & ?uestlove’s short-lived fascination with neo-soul at the turn of the millennium (See: The Soulquarians). But Bilal is so much more than a guy rappers call when they need a hook.
It took me a long-ass time to understand neo-soul. If it weren’t for Bilal being a Philly-native, I probably wouldn’t have heard his previous album, 2001’s 1st Born Second, which was somewhat overshadowed by D’Angelo’s Voodoo amongst the top-tier neo-soul singers of the time. After I buttered-up to the genre, I really began to appreciate that neo-soul was really the marriage of hip-hop and jazz vocalists. Now, that is a gross exaggeration, but neo-soul artists, like Bilal, hold on to the organics of the music, unlike mainstream R&B. Bilal went to the same Philadelphia performing arts school as Black Thought and ?uestlove of the Roots and new-jack-swingers Boys 2 Men. He was inspired most profoundly by singing in his church choir and having close contact with jazz musicians throughout his youth. Just about eight years after 1st Born Second, Bilal returns with his second full-length album, Airtight’s Revenge— a self-proclaimed electro-jazz-rock-neo-soul album…whew.
Bilal seems to be a perfect mixture of Prince’s inflection and Millie Jackson’s punched up sass. He may be the most vocally-gifted singer of the neo-soul movement. Unlike neo-soul singers D’Angelo, Raphael Saadiq, and Dwele, Bilal views himself as a jazz artist, not an R&B artist or jazz singer. This outlook amplifies his creativity because he works his voice more like the way Cannonball Adderly works his sax rather than the way R. Kelly uses his voice. Rappers call this phenomenon “flow,” but it is so much deeper than that for Bilal. Notice the way he waits just a millisecond extra for the stressed syllables, like a slight lag. His music takes breath from the smallest things, and the dynamics of his voice are as distinctive as Miles’ concentrated embouchure. He sounds lethargic— but not lazy. Sometimes his voice resembles a crying baby, other times it comes together as a sensual mumbling. However, all of this concentration on the vibrancy of his voice has left a cavity in his songwriting. And this is not just Bilal’s problem— it’s a complaint I hold with most neo-soul artists. For example, the chorus in “Restart” asks, “Have we come too far to turn it all back around? Or is it too late to start again?” This is just confusing. You’d think he’d say something like: “Have we come too far to turn it all back around? Or can we bring it back to life again?” Perhaps I am just misunderstanding Bilal’s meaning, but lines like this proved frustrating. Other songs like “What Is Love” sounds like he might at any second yell: “BABY DON’T HURT ME, DON’T HURT ME, NO MORE!!” (a la Haddaway)— though I wouldn’t be surprised if Haddaway influenced this song in some way. However, the dedication Bilal devotes to crafting his voice outnumbers and defeats any issue I take with the lyrics. The man is really a genius born from the same vein as other Philadelphia all-stars— Lee Morgan comes to mind.
Bilal produced Airtight’s Revenge all himself. His last album used huge names like Dr. Dre and J Dilla. He felt that his new record needed a more intimate feel, and a new experimental outlook. Though he does employ 88-Keys and SA-RA Creative Partners for some tracks, the production is definitely tighter to Bilal’s overall vision this time. “Levels” has strange warmth in the otherworldly crackling that seems to crumble and hiss in the background throughout the track. Drums are sometimes played live, sometimes programmed. However, I found that determining this distinction is really difficult. This gives a peppy and organic feel to each track. Bilal knows how to contrast loudness and soothing silence to, tracks like “Dollar” really become disjointed and rickety. It’s held together by the silence rather than the sporadic drumming. All of this goes to show that Bilal has a damn good idea of what he is doing, despite sounding improvised at times. The size of his talent becomes apparent upon the realization of the structure and enormous complexity held within his experiment.
BILAL & THE ROOTS: Led Zeppelin’ s “Since You’ve Been Loving Me”/ Radiohead’s “Everything In It’s Right Place”