As the weather turns from warm to cool, I usually take this time of year to reflect on what seems to be the best time for new music releases. The period from September to December is usually when high profile projects seem to come out. Its like the end of the year rush when all the Academy Award contenders jockey for attention. Maybe it’s to keep a fresh impression on the minds of best of voters and list makers.
For the artists I follow closely, 2015 has been a year of surprises. In the case of R&B artist Bilal, every album release is an event. Although his latest was a late summer release, I’m only now learning to love it. His LPs come out years apart, but his production work for a long list of others fills any gaps in his output. Nearly everything that’s hot in the fusion between hip hop and R&B will occasionally have Bilal’s stamp on it. This prodigious output obscured the fact that between all the guest appearances for Kendrick Lamar, Kimbra and many others, Bilal found time to work on his 4th (official) studio album.
In Another Life was not directly comparable to any Bilal albums before it. For one, it was his most challenging collection of jazz tinged compositions. He has always offered the potential promise of what an alternate Prince might sound like, but on In Another Life he steps out even further from purple funk to explore rock themes within the context of fusion jazz.
That might be an odd way of describing the music of someone known for creating some of the most funky singles for people like Common and Jay-Z. Right away the psychedelic vibes of songs like “Star Now” announced that Blial had crossed over into some fusion of jazz, prog rock and funk that few (if any) are attempting today. Less catchy than Prince, more dense than Lenny Kravitz but with some of the ragtime creepiness of Tom Waits, In Another Life was the first Bilal album that had to earn its place on at the top of my playlist.
Eventually, its subtle complexities would grow on me as it mixed the acid of Miles Davis with haze of Jimmy Hendrix. The back photo of Bilal wearing what looks like the standard uniform of the Mothership crew surrounded by tribal and old analog equipment sums up the creative direction of this album nicely.
In fact, the only song that sounds like the conventional (if there was such a thing) Bilal song was the funky single “Pleasure Toy” a song grounded in old school style hip hop thanks to Big K.R.I.T.
That which made Bilal popular in buppie circles is still there, although distorted. On “Linatic” Bilal’s screams and falsetto sound the most like Prince, except that the song is twisted and nightmarish like a Francis Bacon painting. There’s really nothing here that qualifies as light listening. A Hammond style organ gives warmth and texture to “Holding Back”, (a duet with Kendra), but this is a long way from the accessible funk of 1st Born Second.
Other artist, usually people Bilal has worked with contribute to In Another Life’s rich complexity. “ Money Over Love” one of the album’s many street ready songs, features Kendrick Lamar. Another influence Adrian Younge, can be heard on the album, although Younge only played on the opening track, he produced In Another Life – the first time Bilal has worked with him on one of his albums.
As R&B albums go, In Another Life is complicated in that it demanded to be listened to, not just heard while jogging or doing the dishes. They just don’t make R&B this dense anymore. The only place where you might get a taste of this kind of musical richness would have been on some of the singles Bilal produced for others recently. Bilal is far more influential than his individual record sales would indicate. With that influence he just might be able to infuse some life back into R&B after all.