If you are familiar with the neo-soul/funk experimentalist Bilal Sayeed Oliver or just Bilal, you know that he is one of the best singer-songwriters in R&B today. Bilal came out strong with his debut 1st Born Second in 2001 and creatively it’s been up hill from there. Despite the enormous critical appeal and being one of the most sought after producers/collaborators in the business, Bilal’s own music has never achieved the commercial media saturation of singer/dancer types like Chris Brown or Beyonce. Radio be it your local FM or stream could certainly use more of his kind of genius.
Nothing against those dancer types. Bilal has always presented a sophisticated approach to R&B that might limit his audience within the confines of teen focused traditional soul. That musical approach alone would put artist like Bilal at odds with today’s music market. I imagine the typical record company exc might assume the same and go further with the belief that the masses are too ignorant with limited musical awareness to appreciating anything too far beyond what the beaten path (rap or syncro-dancepop) offers.
Being on the high end of that thinking has put Bilal in the middle of some unfortunate struggles with his record company in the past. It may also have contributed to a subtle streak of bitterness that’s discernible in some of his Airtight’s Revenge. Even the album’s name suggests that the circumstances surrounding his last album would not happen this time.
That angst comes across as subtle protest. His varied influences and often surreal approach to writing has given just about everything he touches a unique edge. After a period of nearly a decade with no new album after the aborted release of Love For Sale, Bilal released his second (official) album called Airtight’s Revenge in 2010.
Easily his most challenging project to date Airtight’s Revenge was a darker album about everyday life. Issues of love, commercialism and insecurities mix with a psychedelic/sci-fi streak. Songs like “Robots” and “Cake and Eat it Too” show a new dimension of dark funk that made earlier work from the 1st Born Second days sound conventional.
Bilal never limited himself to just the neo-soul genre. For instance, he uses surprising elements that are reminiscent of alt rock artist like Kate Bush. The closing verses of “Who Are You” are phrased as if they could have come from “Running Up That Hill” or “Cloudbusting” from The Hounds of Love.
Like visually inclined artist Kate Bush, Bilal paints a complex mostly dark picture of the world through vivid songwriting. In Bilal case he adds subverted humor (“The Dollar”) with sarcasm. It’s not all downers. Bilal’s skill as a songwriter shines bright when hes addressing interpersonal issues in a surprisingly uplifting way. The touching “Little One”, a song about his son and “Think it Over” are two that stand out. The albums sonic masterpiece however is “Levels”, a song that starts out as a jazz instrumental and builds up a low-key inward-looking intensity as a psychedelic soul composition.
I could go on and on about this album. It was one of my most anticipated and favorite albums of that year. Every one of the 11 songs on the album could have been a single. Despite having such a deep bench, only one single “Think it Over”was released. While the song helped Airtight’s Revenge reach #21 on the R&B/Hip Hop chart, it was pretty much ignored outside the grown up soul and indie circles that are most familiar with Bilal’s work.
That’s a shame too because Airtight Revenge was easily one of the best albums of any genre in 2010. Very few modern musicians can still paint vivid images in your mind with just their songwriting (most need videos with the before mentioned syncro-dance routines). Oddly, Bilal story based songwriting is a trait is usually associate with vintage folk or country music.
Ironically, with his profile ever rising as a hit maker for others, Bilal has yet to land a major record label that’s able/willing to promote and distribute his work in the manner it deserves (even in a digital era). Unfortunately, as we get older, studies have shown that we buy less music. If that’s true, then talented maturing artist like Bilal have the potential of being left behind in a world where the charts are governed by people who aren’t even old enough to drive. Somehow I don’t think that will be Bilal’s fate.