Label: Plug Research
From the depths of record label purgatory comes a singer whom, despite his only official release hitting store shelves in 2001 and getting branded as “unmarketable” by his former label, has one of the most anticipated R&B releases of the year in Airtight’s Revenge. This past decade has seen the singer, originally named Bilal Oliver, have his cult following expand to the point of almost becoming an official religion. Popping up to contribute celebrated atmosphere-setting appearances on Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury and Scarface’s Emeritus added to both his mystery and allure. Along with 2006’s unreleased Love for Sale becoming one of the industry worst-kept secrets, his unrelenting and awe-inspiring live show manage to even reach admirers in the “I hate all modern soul except…” crowd. The biggest obstacle facing the potential of bottling Bilal’s lightning in an album would be capturing that same live experience and Airtight’s Revenge does it.
Often unfairly pigeonholed with his Neo-Soul brethren, Bilal stands out in 2010’s R&B soundscape because he stands right in the middle of it. At a time when his contemporaries are obsessed with making music that sounds like it was made 20 years ago or predicting what it will sound like 20 years from now, Bilal is living for the moment. He wears his influences on his sleeve without being transparently derivative and has enough of his own soul to make nothing about Airtight’s Revenge “Neo-” whatsoever. This individuality is the album’s greatest strength; his live show’s charisma, flamboyance and shaman-like captivation translate perfectly to the point where the album’s akin to being “Bilal: The Home Game.”
Bilal’s performance is strong, the mixing is flawless and that alone should warrant a listen from any audience whether longtime fan or curious newcomer. That being said, there is one somewhat jarring, but forgivable flaw, and that’s found in the lyrics. Bilal is a strong enough artist to weave a narrative with mere vocal inflections, so to hear scenarios as painfully spelled out as on the Nottz-produced “Flying” or as pointlessly convoluted on “Who Are You,” it’s almost embarrassing. They’re basically Prince lyrics without anything that makes Prince lyrics good. Whether it’s failed minimalism or attempts to force interest, they make songs with otherwise jaw-dropping performances almost unlistenable. But at least this is balanced out by a well-constructed tracklisting. For an artist whose live shows seem to almost be a meticulously perfected as a religious ritual, the songs are ordered as if someone assembled a ‘Best of Bilal’ playlist for first time listeners. This is no more apparent than the 88 Keys-produced “Think It Over,” a fitting closer that sounds different enough from the rest of the album to add a new perspective upon each listen.
Still, despite the fact that Bilal is far too talented an artist to be rhyming “dollar” with “holler” this much, his performance and the fantastic production of frequent-collaborator Steve McKie and others makes this the Bilal album that will let non-believers understand what all the hype’s about. Bilal seems really onto something here, and all signs point to whatever he follows Airtight’s Revenge with to be something really special. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take nine years to get here.
by Chaz Kangas